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.

Poor Will's Almanack is also available as a podcast.
 

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Nature
6:30 am
Tue June 17, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: June 17 - 23, 2014

Credit Terry Dunn / Flickr Creative Commons

From the middle of May until early July, the days are the longest of the year.

And the abundance and the lushness of these days may have us wonder if life is not actually measured in quantity, measured like the longest days.

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Nature
10:55 am
Tue June 10, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: June 10 - 16, 2014

Credit Cindy Cornett Seigle / Flickr Creative Commons

Walking the path that follows the cliffs along the river near my home, I often think about the people who lived here thousands of years ago.

They must have found this place an oasis of shelter, water, fish, and game in the middle of the harsh virgin forest. I imagine them making camp along the limestone outcroppings, keeping their fires and defenses close to the stone, bathing and playing in backwaters, picking berries, hunting deer.

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Nature
6:15 am
Tue June 3, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: June 3 - 9, 2014

Credit David Craig / Flickr Creative Commons

I have recently paid attention to the fact that my solitude is always an accompanied solitude.

Last year, I took part in several group walking meditation sessions in the woods. During these walks, I found that was I flooded with images from the path and the season, and with associated images of people I once knew and events evoked by the trees and plants, and I realized that the group experience only compounded another type of experience, that of being accompanied by other inhabitants of the landscape of my mind.

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Nature
6:15 am
Tue May 27, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: May 27 - June 2, 2014

Credit Erik Paterson / Flickr Creative Commons

The other morning, I was sitting by the garden pond, when the dogs across the street began to bark. Whatever it was that roused them must have been pretty exciting, because they kept up their yapping for several minutes. That was long enough to incite the bullfrog in the water beside me to bark too, to join their chorus. And so, for maybe twenty or thirty seconds, I sat on my wooden bench and listened to the hounds and the frog sing together.

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Nature
6:15 am
Tue May 20, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: May 20 - 26, 2014

Credit David Slack / Flickr Creative Commons

An ambiguous space between seasons sometimes allows me to break with my lineal mind. I lose expectations and even the tension of hope. I let go like I do when everything is beyond my control.

The fact that the advance of external spring this year is outside of my power gives me an excuse to imagine that I do not have influence in matters of internal spring. Allowing myself to be caught at the crossroads of interseasonal ambivalence, I give up my autonomy for a neutral sanctuary.

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