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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.

The Big Dipper on the fall sky
Frank Boston / Flickr Creative Commons

The Big Dipper at midnight tells the progress of the year. When its pointers, Merak and Dubhe, point north-south, and the Dipper lies tight against the northern horizon, the northern hemisphere has left summer behind. Leaves are turning, birds migrating, wildflower time closing, the farm and garden take their harvest. The seasons of early, middle and late autumn pass through your habitat.

Noel Pennington / Flickr Creative Commons

Between full summer and the final leafdrop of early December, many separate micro seasons blend with one another, the flowers of August sometimes lasting into early fall, the flowers of September sometimes blooming out of turn before late summer, sometimes the trees keeping their green and leaves well toward middle autumn.

autumn leaves
Heliosphere / Flickr Creative Commons

When autumn leafturn starts near equinox in the Midwest, the deciduous trees are bare in northern Canada.  In Oregon and Maine, foliage colors are approaching their best. In the Rocky Mountains, bull elks are mustering their harems, and snow is falling.  Along the 40th parallel, the smoky tint of last week’s canopy quickly becomes clear and bright.

fall sky
Per / Flickr Creative Commons

Fall doesn't come all at once with equinox; it's been coming since the 26th of June when the days started to grow longer again, the Northern Hemisphere tilting away from its source of heat.

The sun rose from the east northeast and set west northwest three months ago; now it rises almost due east, sets due west. Dawn and dusk continue to move south at the rate of about one degree every 72 hours until December solstice.

Cam Miller / Flickr Creative Commons

In this fifth week of late summer, the final tier of wildflowers starts to open.  White and violet asters, orange beggarticks, burr marigolds, tall goldenrod, zigzag goldenrod and Japanese knotweed come into bloom, blending with the brightest of the purple ironweed, yellow sundrops, blue chicory, golden touch-me-nots, showy coneflowers and great blue lobelia.

cricket
Nicolas Winspeare / Flickr Creative Commons

In matters of global economics, the concepts of millions and billions and trillions seem disconnected from day-to-day budgeting. Who knows, I wonder, what all those zeros at the end of whole numbers really mean

As I watch the season progress, I realize that my sense of numbers in the world around me is equally as confused. In the middle of May, the hundred days of summer feel like a zillion days to me. My body senses a limitless promise in that span of time.

monarch butterfly
Peter Miller / Flickr Creative Commons

I settled in to watch like I used to do when I went fishing. I used to sit for hours then,  focused on my bobber and fingering the tension on my line. The bites or strikes were signs that I had understood something of the river’s mystery and its creatures.

Liz West / Flickr Creative Commons

When the lilies were still in bloom a month ago, I went counting lily blossoms every day.  I knew that my practice had almost no socially redeeming value. I knew that no one else cared  about the number of lily blossoms in my yard, and that the actual number did not interest me so much as the counting itself.

I recorded the results of counting in my daybook, but  the record did not support theories of climate change. In fact, it supported nothing at all.

So why did I do it, really?  

Scott Butner / Flickr Creative Commons

The Perseid meteors bring starfall to the northeastern portion of the sky on the nights of August 12 and 13, and the arrival of those shooting stars marks high tide of the Dog Days. Rising out of winter’s Taurus and Orion, they cut across Perseus and Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Pegasus, piercing the illusion of endless summer.

Throughout the countryside, Queen Anne's lace, chicory, goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, sundrops, bull thistles, mustard, black-eyed Susans, wingstem, mullein and ironweed arein full bloom along the roads.  Soybeans are deep green, corn lush.

Crow
Lucinda M / Flickr Creative Commons

Crows are usually silent during their mating time and the time they raise their young. Now, the fledglings are almost grown, and the crows come back together in flocks, and they begin to converse near my house before sunrise.

The singing of robins and cardinals grace the spring and early summer, but as middle summer warms, the songs of those birds grow quiet. The crows, though, are the most faithful morning sky-talkers throughout the late summer, fall and winter.

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