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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.

ladydragonflyherworld / Flickr Creative Commons

The Ducks-Scouting-for-Nests Moon wanes throughout the week, entering its final quarter on March 9 and reaching gentle apogee, its position farthest from Earth, two days later. Rising near midnight and setting in the morning, this Moon moves overhead throughout the darkest hours before daylight.

And if you spring your clocks ahead an hour for Daylight Saving Time just before dawn on the 11th, you might see the Moon rising in the east, not far from Jupiter and Mars in the southeast.

Kaarina Dillabough / Flickr Creative Commons

March had come in like a lion. And in the morning, I walked through town along the road to the songs of sparrows and crows, southeast into woods of Osage and scrub black walnuts and box elders.

All their branches were coated with ice, were shining in the sun, the world bright, steaming from the melting water.

I moved out of the open road and the noise of the city, into a protective hive of reflected light and a kind of bee-like murmuring that grew stronger as I entered the woods and took away all my attention away from the world outside. 

martius / Flickr Creative Commons

Just last year, after a January six degrees above average and  a remarkable first three weeks of February over eleven degrees above average, the land responded with change not seen since the warmest January-February on record in 1890.

pittou2 / Flickr Creative Commons

The Frolicking Fox Moon wanes until it becomes the new Ducks-Scouting-for-Nests on February 15.

During this February Moon, ducks actually do scout for nesting sites. Geese are looking, too.  This Moon brings more substance to the natural history of the year, an increase in the number of flower, foliage, insect and bird sightings and bird calls, a weightier accumulation of change than that of last week. That accumulation contributes a little more to the seasonal heritage of each region, adds to the composite of time that helps to define the cycles of passage.

hieronymouspidgeon / Flickr Creative Commons

In the long cold of the last few weeks, I have withdrawn into a fetal, psychic hibernation, reminiscing about childhood and about other retreats I have made from the weather and the world. This morning, while I was working alone in my attic bindery, listening to the wind and watching the snow, a memory mood from my hermetic high school years at Holy Cross Seminary came back and settled around me.

Paul Reynolds / Flickr Creative Commons

Despite the cold veneer of Late Winter and the power of tomorrow’s Supermoon, the natural year quickens. Nighttime excursions of skunks, the occasional appearance of flies, an increase in opossum activity, the prophetic calls of overwintering robins, and the disappearance of autumn seeds all offer counterpoint to winter silence and days of snow.

No matter the cold, beavers strip bark for food along the rivers. The tufted titmouse has begun its spiral mating flights. Blue jays give their bell-like calls. Male cardinals have started to sing before dawn.

through-the-eyes-of-g / Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes the arrival of  Late Winter, carries a great thaw. One day I went out to the river in the warmth of such a thaw, when cumulus clouds tumbled across the sky in gusts of the southwest wind, and the water of the river was shining with low, brisk waves of silvers, then blues, then grays.

The oaks of the far bank were black against the bright sky. On hillsides of Osage trees, patches of their yellow wood glowed like the flush of expanding spring buds. Below the Osage hardy green chickweed,wild onion, garlic mustard, henbit and hemlock lay akimbo across the melting snow.

Will Montague / Flickr Creative Commons

The Frolicking Fox Moon is new today, and it waxes crescent throughout the coming week, entering its second quarter next Tuesday. This is the Moon that carries the Northern Hemisphere deep into the final days Late Winter, tantalizingly close to the first days of Early Spring. This Moon bodes well for the seeding of bedding plants and the earliest tomatoes under lights. It is a pruning moon that encourages making way for new growth. It is a moon that invites me out into the land to try to find the first pieces of the spring.

perry-pics / Flickr Creative Commons

It seems that the world lies too still and too deathly quiet in the middle of Deep Winter, but the Sun finally starts to rise earlier this week, finally cutting away at the length of the nights, complementing the sunset times that have been been occurring later just a little every few days since the middle of December.

The Bedding Plant Moon, weakens the meteorological tides as it reaches apogee (its position farthest from Earth) on January 14.

Mark K. / Flickr Creative Commons

“Different atmospheric conditions – different kinds of weather- are, precisely different moods,” writes the phenomenologist,  David Abram.  “Wind, rain, snow, fog, hail, open skies, heavy overcast – each…affects the relation between our body and the living land in a specific way, altering the tenor of our reflections and the tonality of our dreams.

What might that mean this week? Maybe a little optimism, in spite of the arrival of Deep Winter.

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