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.

Jereme Rauckman / Flickr Creative Commons

As the last leaves of the year come down, seed catalogs start arriving in my mailbox, and I plan for spring under the Bedding Plant Seeding Moon.  Usually, I order a few packages of geraniums, coleus and petunias, and I start them under grow lights close to the furnace, which happens to be in the attic. 

If I keep the soil warm, well watered and close to the fluorescent bulbs, the seeds germinate within a week or so and then develop steadily throughout the winter.

Carlo Scherer / Flickr Creative Commons

The foliage was still thick and lush when I entered the familiar woods one late September afternoon. I used to know those trails well, but now they had become overgrown, wilder than they were decades ago.

The path was not marked, but I felt I knew where I was going. How could anyone get lost here? It never crossed my mind. I wandered and daydreamed, not paying attention to where I was going.

Peter Stevens / Flickr Creative Commons

A little rain then flurries about noon, then this afternoon, hazy sky, white sun low in the southwest, I walked along the brooks, water higher than it had been in weeks, and all around me the chickweed was rising through the mulch of the last honeysuckle leaves, through the crumbling strata of summer and fall, along the banks of the river, and up the wooded talus slopes, and there was garlic mustard, too, and sweet rockets and fresh wild onions and slippery ragwort leaves and floppy leafcup in between the trunks of fallen trees covered with moss and mushrooms.

John Flannery / Flickr Creative Commons

The first butterflies of the spring are easy to notice. They emerge out of April and May to seek the flowers of middle and late spring, and they are full of prophetic meaning.

ashokboghani / Flickr Creative Commons

With most of the leaves fallen, the countdown for spring is underway. And a person might count in all sorts of ways.

One method is to keep track of the number of precipitation days: across the central portion of the United States about 50 days of rain or snow usually lie between now and April.

Another gauge is the number cloudy days: in most of the country except along the west coast and the near the Great Lakes, there are almost never more than 75, rarely fewer than 60.

Billtacular / Flickr Creative Commons

I went out into the woods and fields this morning: Small cups of gossamer were shining with dew, hanging to the tips of the dry wingstem. In the mist, the grass was yellowing, and the woods appeared like it does in April, bright leaves like new flowers.

Seeds were sprouting in rotten tree stumps, the sweet smell of autumn ground all around me. The low sun rested in the treetops. The silver winding river, the fallen logs invisible in summer, lay below me.

Martin LeBar / Flickr Creative Commons

On October 22, the Frog and Toad Migration Moon comes into its final quarter. The following day, called Cross-Quarter Day, the sun reaches half way between autumn equinox and winter solstice, entering the fertile but chilly sign of Scorpio.

Paladin27 / Flickr Creative Commons

The Frog and Toad Migration Moon waxes until it becomes completely full  October 15. Rising in the evening and setting in the morning, the moon will be overhead around midnight.

Full moon should strengthen the traditional mid-October cold front, increasing the chances for frost and even snow fluries.

And this stage of the lunar orb may affect more than the weather.

Elliot McCrory / Flickr Creative Commons

Under this waxing moon, a major shift in foliage color occurs all along the 40th Parallel. The nights grow colder; the mornings sometimes bring frost. The frogs and toads wander yards and gardens looking the right places to dig in against the winter.  Throughout the fields, aster and goldenrod flowers lose their color. Brown beggartick burs stick to your stockings, and the winged seeds of Japanese knotweed fall.  In urban ponds, water lilies stop blooming.

toad
trekr / Flickr Creative Commons

The days continue clear and warm and bright. Two weeks ago, much of the landscape was still deep, late-summer green. Now, a few maples and dogwoods are red and orange, cottonwoods and catalpas and sweet gums and shagbark hickories are yellow, and grape vines and nettles are bleached with age. Locust leaves drizzle steadily to the undergrowth. The serviceberries are almost bare. The black walnut trees keep only their last fruit. Purple poison ivy and Virginia creeper outline the changes.

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