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.

goldenrod in the fall
Bridget Leyendecker / Flickr Creative Commons

I wander into the chilly, wet morning of an old farm on equinox, swallows circling above me, crows, blue jays and cardinals and mockingbirds, ground crickets and field crickets and tree crickets accompanying me on my walk.

Common ragweed everywhere has gone to seed. In patches of soil between slabs of old cement and blacktop grow ancient chicory and Queen Anne's lace, horseweed past its best, pink smartweed in large clumps, blushing wild dogwood, small white asters (two tiny bees huddled- one on top of the other - on one aster blossom), tall goldenrod full bloom.

Sara Björk / Flickr Creative Commons

Now when the nights are cool and the moon is dark, those giant puffball mushrooms swell in the woods,  getting so big...

September fogs, the sliding sun, and one of the most radical weather shifts so far in the season, calls them up from the ground.

As the day moves to within a few degrees of equinox, other creatures tell the time as well as puffballs.

Giant Hostas
Lola Audu / Flickr Creative Commons

Deep in the woods, tall wood nettle, wingstem, ironweed, and touch-me-nots have obscured the web of spring and summer, all the trilliums, the violet cress, the ragwort, the purple phlox, toothwort, Jack-in-the pulpit and bluebells, honewort, waterleaf.

slappytheseal / Flickr Creative Commons

I have fond memories of puffballs and their moon because twenty-eight years ago, a friend called me up with some news.

“There’s a lady out on the street,” he said, “with a real big mushroom.”

I went to see the sight, and there, indeed was a young woman holding what was to become the world’s largest puffball mushroom (calvatia gigantea), 18.38 pounds, 77 inches around.

In our conversation years later, the woman told me that her giant fungus (“Puffy, as she called it,”) had made the 1990 and 1991 editions of the Guinness Book of World Records.

Tyler Sprague / Flickr Creative Commons

Having dropped below the celestial equator in the first week of late summer, the sun has now left the stability of Leo and entered the more volatile sign of Virgo, the first of the most violent periods of change in the second half of the year.

At the transition between Leo’s great plateau of heat and color in July and Libra’s sudden collapse of the forest canopy in early fall, Virgo brings the first turning of the leaves and the first chance of frost.

ozpagan / Flickr Creative Commons

The Katydid Moon is waxing bright and gibbous these evenings. It will be  full on the 18th dominating the sky sky and tides this week.

The full moon is always overhead in the middle of the night, and if you walk under its glow, you might see the high bloom of velvetleaf, jimsonweed, prickly mallow, wild lettuce, ironweed and wingstem. You might pick soft elderberries and blackberries.

Joshua Mayer / Flickr Creative Commons

The pieces of late summer fall into place, creating the season. The heat stays, but the rhythm shifts, the tones of the leaves are different, colors and sounds and scents all pointing to September.

Cottonwood leaves are becoming pale near my house. In the park, black walnut, sumac, wild grape, sycamore, elm, box elder, and redbud are turning yellow. The katydids, which started to sing last week in my neighborhood, are in full chorus after dark. The cicadas have finally all come out and fill the afternoons.

katydid
AFPMB / Flickr Creative Commons

Just before sunrise, I went jogging at the edge of town: I heard the loud rattle of tree crickets; chirping of field crickets; doves calling; I saw a cluster of robins scouting the pavement and yards, but there was no robin chorus, just the steady chirping of the sparrow flocks; a cardinal sang toward the edge of town, but he was the only one.

Liz West / Flickr Creative Commons

The speed of summer seemx to be accelerating with the heat of Dog Days. I rest in my yard, holding the day close, binding it together with what lies around me.

In my garden pond, the three-petaled flowers of the arrowhead opened overnight, a few days before they did last year. The yellow coneflowers are a week ahead of schedule.

The zinnias and the Shasta daisies I planted from seed are finally blossoming, bright oranges and reds joining the white phlox and the pinks of the petunias. The lilies are almost done blooming now.

Nicolas Winspeare / Flickr Creative Commons

The year is 200 days old this week. Between the one-hundredth day and the two-hundredth day of the year, the land completes middle spring, passes through late spring and early summer, then enters middle summer. By the two-hundredth day, the cardinals sleep late. Katydids and crickets call in the damp, warm nights. The field corn is tall, the sweet corn and tomatoes are coming in, and the wheat harvest is complete.

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