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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.

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.

frted / Flickr Creative Commons

“I believe,” wrote the poet Robinson Jeffers,  “that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, therefore parts of one organic whole….”

Under the spell of middle spring, it is not so difficult to feel part of that one being, to sense that we express its energy and hope. Because this  is the week of pale violets in the lawn and vast patches of dandelions along the roadsides.

Jerry and Pat Donaho / Flickr Creative Commons

In his 1989 classic, The End of Nature, ecologist Bill McKibben talks about people’s expectations that spring will come the way it always has come. There may, of course, be cold springs and warm springs, wet springs and dry springs, but what if  our deeper expectations are unmet? What if spring is so cold or so warm that it becomes a different season altogether? And what happens, McKibben asks, if our certainty about the predictable sequence of nature falters?   

BobMacInnes / Flickr Creative Commons

Recent events have unnerved me and pulled me just a little out of my lazy spring fever. It seems very clear that the global environment will be challenged more than ever during the years ahead.

Well, I attempt to begin to respond: I return to Gary Snyder’s poem, “For the Children", and his admonition to stay together, to learn the flowers and to go light.

So I have learned a lot of flowers in the past decades of my life. I start there. I see that floral taxonomy is not so much a matter of botany as it is a result of noticing, of watching, of caring.

bishib70 / Flickr Creative Commons

The exact end of winter came well before the most recent thaws, arriving unseen in the coldest weeks of the year when flower bulbs and buds followed their own schedules and began to show beneath and above the snow.

Walking through town this morning, I found that some daffodils were budding, some even blooming, and a few tulips and hyacinths were up four or five inches.  Snowdrops, snow crocus and aconite were already past their prime. Lilac buds were swollen, fat green and gold. Pussy willow catkins were cracking.

windy_ / Flickr Creative Commons

When a thaw comes up from the Gulf, it always shatters my cold-weather cabin fever. Thaws crack and dismantle the dark cataract of winter across my vision. Thaws call up childhood and value longings, whisper some ancient truth.

I remember one year after a great thaw. I must have been only six or seven years old. I pulled on my rubber boots and went wading in a flooded vacant lot near our house. I looked for fish that could not possibly have been there, and I felt happy in the clear spring-like wetland.   

Sandhill Cranes
Mark Moschell / Flickr Creative Commons

Each event in nature always points to other events, one part linked to so many other parts and ultimately to the whole. So the robin chorus that begins this month along the 40th parallel, is a mine from which one might draw out numberless concurrent happenings, all of them together making spring.

In this month of the Robin Chorus Moon when robins start their singsong calls in the morning twilight, then pollen forms on pussy willow catkins, and the first mosquito bites. Moths appear at your porch light.

Jagrap / Flickr Creative Commons

My home is my observatory. Near winter solstice, the sun comes up just on the other side of the Danielsons’ house  across the street (as far south as it ever rises) and it shines in to the north wall of my home office, lies across the bed in the green bedroom.

Marilylle Soveran / Flickr Creative Commons

Today, February 14, is the first day of early spring throughout the Lower Midwest. Although temperatures can be in the 30s almost half the time or even in the 20s, February 14th suddenly offers a 50 percent chance of highs above 40 degrees.

And tomorrow, the 15th has the highest incidence of highs in the 50s and 60s of any time so far in February - a full 40 percent of the afternoons reach those levels. That’s the first time since December 15th that the likelihood of mild temperatures has been so great.

brambleroots / Flickr Creative Commons

Since I came to southwestern Ohio in the late 1970s, I have recorded the dates for many of the earliest snows. There is no scientific method here, but rather a shaping of personal context.

The earliest flurries fell on October 5 of 2014. The first snow of almost half a foot came on October 30 of 1993. On November 11, 1984, I made the first snowball of the winter. This year the first snow, about four inches, arrived on December 13. The latest first snow came on December 31, 1998.

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