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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.

Nicholas A. Tonelli / Flickr Creative Commons

On a recent walk, I covered several miles a day over the course of a month. The longer I walked, the more I found it was harder to remember the day of the week or month. The time on my watch was no longer so important as the position of the sun or the temperature or the direction or strength of the wind.

kaysgeog / Flickr Creative Commons

When I walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain a few months ago, I relearned old lessons, lessons of motion and feeling.

I hiked down country roads and byways, my face in the chilly wind, the weight of my pack on my shoulders and lower back, my legs pulling me along, the sky clearest blue – no clouds mile after mile, sun warming my neck. All the time I was heading west toward what is called “the End of the World” in Finisterre, the last outcropping of Europe.

Piotr / Flickr Creative Commons

Recently, I took a walk of almost two- hundred miles across the landscape of spring on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

The vegetation and the emerging leaves on the canopy above me offered a dense background with many markers for the progress of the season as well as for my own progress along the path – on which I averaged about seven to nine miles in a day.

Ewen Roberts / Flickr Creative Commons

When lilies and thistles bloom, mulberries and strawberries ripen, box turtles lay eggs, and winter wheat turns pale gold green, then it is the first week of early summer, and the whole season spreads into June. Catalpas and privets and pink spirea bloom as the first cutting of hay gets underway. Nodding thistles, Canadian thistles, the first great mullein, the first Asiatic lily and the first orange trumpet creepers open.

Caobhin / Flickr Creative Commons

Late Spring comes to an end throughout the East this week as the high canopy of leaves closes all the way. Even though the sycamores may hold back for a week or so, now there is a convergence of events that pushes the land over the edge into early summer. 

Ib Aamaro / Flickr Creative Commons

Everything happens so quickly between the end of March and the middle of May. Bare trees fill out, and the brown, silent earth comes completely alive.

The feelings that move over me in the wake of all those changes range from exhilaration and joy to disappointment to a sense of being overwhelmed, to a sense of sadness.

Brian Wolfe / Flickr Creative Commons

I got up a little after 5:00 in the morning. My window was open, and the air was cool and damp. I felt the anxiety and fear that sometimes greet me when I wake. I was still tired and wanted to stay in bed, but remnants of my dreams kept me from going back to sleep and finally pulled me up.

Brandon Giesbrecht / Flickr Creative Commons

In the course of my almanack record keeping, I have found that soil temperatures generally follow the normal average air temperatures within maybe ten degrees. But in the spring, the ground often lags behind the weather, remaining cold, and causing considerable anguish to the farmer and gardener.

For example, if your beans go in before the earth is warm enough, they rot where you lay them. “Nothing sprouts,” says the ancient Greek sage, Theophrastus, “before its proper time.” At least I think he said something like that…..

Jo Naylor / Flickr Creative Commons

Cross-Quarter Day is April 21, a day before Earth Day this year, the day on which the sun reaches halfway between equinox and solstice, and enters the late spring sign of Taurus. Now the meager inventories of change that characterized equinox quickly fill with new details each day. The floral and faunal fragments of the season multiply, literally filling in the space of Earth with tangible, visible clockwork.

hoptographie / Flickr Creative Commons

The older I become, the more I am aware of the sources of my moods, the more I see the almost deciduous nature of my emotions, the clear and critical relationship between the outside world, the passage of the seasons, and my mind.

I've found that my self is somehow loose, unanchored, and that it continually needs an abundance of landmarks and time tellers, needs colors, and aromas, and textures over and over in order to find meaning, orientation, and place.

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