Poor Will's Almanack

Tuesdays during Morning Edition

Bill Felker’s Poor Will’s Almanack currently appears in fifteen regional and national publications including the Yellow Springs News.

Bill Felker on how the almanack began:

The Author of the following Letters takes the liberty, with all proper deference, of laying before the public his idea of ”parochial history”....
Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne

Poor Will’s Almanack, which I feel is something akin to what Gilbert White would consider “parochial history,” began in 1972 with the gift of a barometer. My wife, Jean, gave the instrument to me when I was succumbing
to graduate school stress in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it became not only an escape from intense academic work, but the first step on the road to a different kind of awareness about the world.

From the start, I was never content just to watch the barometric needle; I had to record its movement, then graph it. I was fascinated by the alchemy of the charts that turned rain and sun into visible patterns, symbols like notes on a sheet of music, or words on a page.

From my graphs of barometric pressure, I discovered that the number of cold fronts each month is more or less consistent, and that the earth breathes at an average rate of about once every three to five days in the winter, and once each six to eight days at the peak of summer.

A short apprenticeship told me when important changes would occur and what kind of weather would take place on most any day. That information was expressed in the language of odds and percentages, and it was surprisingly accurate. Taking into consideration the consistency of certain patterns in the past, I could make fairly successful predictions about the likelihood of the repetition of such paradigms in the future. As Yeats says, the seasons "have their fixed returns,” and I found points all along the course of the year which appeared
to be fixed moments for change. The pulse of the world was steadier than I had ever imagined.

My graphs also allowed me to see the special properties of each season.  August's barometric configurations, for example, are slow and gentle like low, rolling hills. Heat waves show up as plateaus. Thunderstorms are sharp, shallow troughs in the gentle waves of the atmospheric landscape. Autumn arrives like the sudden appearance of a pyramid on a broad plain. By the end of September, the fronts are stronger; the high-pressure peaks become taller; the lows are deeper, with almost every valley bringing rain. By December, the systems loom on the horizon of the graph like a range of mountains with violent extremes of altitude, sometimes snowcapped, almost always imposing and sliced by canyons of wind.

From watching the weather, it was an easy step to watching wildflowers.  Identifying plants, I saw that flowers were natural allies of my graphs, and that they were parallel measures of the seasons and the passage of time. I kept a list of when each wildflower blossomed and saw how each one consistently opened around a specific day, and that even though a cold year could set blooming back up to two weeks, and unusual warmth accelerate it, average dates were quite useful in establishing sequence of bloom which always showed me exactly where  I was in the progress of the year.

In the summer of 1978, Jean and I took the family to Yellow Springs, Ohio, a small town just beyond the eastern edge of the Dayton suburbs. We bought a house and planned to stay. I began to write a nature almanac for the local newspaper. To my weather and wildflower notes I added daily sunrise and sunset times, moonrise and moonset, average and record temperatures, comments on foliage changes, bird migration dates, farm and gardening cycles, and the rotation of the stars.

The more I learned around Yellow Springs, the more I found applicable to the world beyond the village limits. The microclimate in which I immersed myself gradually became a key to the extended environment; the part unlocked the whole. My Yellow Springs gnomon that measured the movement of the sun along the ecliptic also measured my relationship to every other place on earth.  My occasional trips turned into exercises in the measurement of variations in the landscape. When I drove 500 miles northwest, I not only entered a different space, but often a separate season, and I could mark the differences in degrees of flowers, insects, trees, and the development of the field crops. The most exciting trips were taken south in March; I could travel from early spring into middle spring and finally into late spring and summer along the Gulf Coast.

My engagement with the natural world, which began as an escape from academia, finally turned into a way of getting private bearings, and of finding a sense of values. It was a process of spiritual as well as physical reorientation.  The extremes of that process often puzzled me as well as my family and my newspaper readers. Why I felt compelled to go well beyond a barometric notebook and end up describing the average weather and the state of nature on each day of the Yellow Springs year I have not the slightest idea. My existential search for home must have required it of me, and so, in that sense, all the historical statements in this collection of notes are the fruit of a strong need to define, in maybe excessive detail, where I am and what happens around me.

Ways to Connect

Chris Pawluk / Flickr Creative Commons

Sky clear: 55 degrees: Walking slowly through the wetlands, the ground green with chickweed and garlic mustard. You see the squat spears of skunk cabbage a hand high but not open, Moss is long, often gilded with bloom, on stumps and fallen branches. Red berries shine in the barberry. The river is blue from the sky, and sunlight flashes on the water.

November rain on window
Lisa Risager / Flickr Creative Commons

After almost six weeks of energy and planning, which is my typical response to the close of summer, my mood is quickly changing. It could be the rain and the cold outside my window.

Along with a shift in emotional priorities, I experience twinges of guilt and frustration. What about the projects outlined in early fall? What about the excitement of getting ready for winter. What about the sense of purpose that I had just a short time ago.

Nagaraju Hanchanahal / Flickr Creative Commons

Remembering back and forth from autumn to autumn, I watch the critical, pivotal events of November come to converge in space and time.

On November 5, 1992, the first snow covered my yard at 5:00 a.m. with heavy, fat flakes..

fauxto_digit / Flickr Creative Commons

I walk through the gateway to late fall. There is still time, the landscape tells me.

The last crickets still sing in the warmer evenings, and the last daddy longlegs huddle together in the woodpile. Mosquitoes still wait for prey near backwaters and puddles. Woolly bear caterpillars, most of them dark orange and black, still emerge in the sun.

Danny Plas / Flickr Creative Commons

The sun is bright. I shut the blinds against the day, pulling in, keeping myself from being taken outside by the clear sky, by the relentless turning and shedding of the maples.

I pull back to watch myself, to see how my body remains here, momentarily invulnerable in this room. I pull back to watch my feelings before I let autumn in, to see myself the way I was in summer.

Mark Kramer / Flickr Creative Commons

The vigil for spring begins with middle fall, and the Big Dipper at midnight is one of the easier markers for judging the progress of the year.

When its pointers, named Merak and Dubhe, point north-south, and the Dipper lies tight against the northern horizon, most of the country has entered autumn. Leaves are turning, birds migrating, wildflower time closing.

When, Merak and Dubhe, (over in the eastern half of the sky) point east-west (as well as to Polaris, the north star), the harvest is complete, all the leaves are down, and winter solstice approaches.

arcturus15 / Flickr Creative Commons

Not long ago, I made a trip to a monastery in Kentucky. I spent a weekend walking in the fields and woods, reflecting on the close of summer and the approach of winter.

The weather was warm and comforting. The surrounding hills were covered with the dusky glow of middle fall. In my wanderings, I entered a grove of oaks and maples that I hadn’t seen before, and as I walked down a gentle slope, I began to come upon statues that had been placed along the way. A weathered cherub held a message from Exodus 23: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way…..”

Jen Goellnitz / Flickr Creative Commons

Notes that cover decades of observations for the same day offer the writer and reader a radial time lapse in which any given 24-hour period is magnified and enhanced by an accumulation of related events from that day in different years.

The images and impressions from each year overlap, some almost the same, others seeming out of focus, but all together creating one time-lapse day across decades.

Juanita Demchak / Flickr Creative Commons

These last days of early autumn, I hear starlings chattering and whistling in the trees every morning. I watch the drying of goldenrod until it blends with the Bermuda grass, foxtail, smooth brome, orchard grass and timothy all gone to seed. The black walnut and cottonwood trees along my block are bare.

Richard Cook / Flickr Creative Commons

I have always been partial toward spiders. My mother, a stay-at-home mom who spent a lot of time in the basement washing clothes (refusing to use an automatic washer), always talked fondly of them. They were her friends, she sometimes told me.

I believed her, and so I have lived my life in harmony with spiders, protecting them when I can, only intervening in their activities occasionally to save a moth or butterfly. And I usually encounter my favorite spiders, the Microcenthas and the Orb Weavers, at the end of late summer and the beginning of autumn.