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.

Katja Schulz / Flickr Creative Commons

On November 23, the Sun entered the sign of Sagittarius, and Sunset reached to within just a few minutes of its earliest time throughout the nation.

In the dark, Orion becomes unmistakable now as early winter approaches, and Sirius and Procyon follow him out of the southeast after midnight. Cygnus, the swan of the Northern Cross, the gauge of autumn's progress, is disappearing south. October's Pegasus and Andromeda fall away behind it.

penerik / Flickr Creative Commons

A month ago, I took a long drive to see the trees of Middle Fall, and as I traveled, I paid attention to the way I missed home and summer, and I thought about what caused the discomfort at leaving both behind.

Since my wife died five years ago, I have tried to understand how to come to terms with home. I have become overly attached to the place where I live and to my story contained in its rooms and gardens. It is hard for me to go away.

oatsy40 / Flickr Creative Commons

November is getting pretty far along now. Most of the leaves have come down throughout the northern half of the United States, and the likelihood of frost and snow flurries becomes stronger.

The Pleiades are well up in the east in the late evening, followed by Aldebaran and Taurus.  Orion and winter aren’t  far behind them.

Martin LaBar / Flickr Creative Commons

When I am sitting on the porch, I hear two Osage fruits fall into the great open palms of the Lenten roses near the west fence. At the pond, my koi lie low on the bottom, subdued by the autumn. Pale grape leaves streak the honeysuckle hedge. Even though the hummingbird food slowly disappears, it seems that the yellow jackets are the only ones drinking. One white bindweed has blossomed near the trellis, and Ruby’s white phlox have a few new flowers. All the finches at the feeders have lost their gold and are ready for winter. 

CarrieLu / Flickr Creative Commons

Standing at the end of October, I hold fast to remnants of the year and to the emotions that stick to them, feelings that reflect the things I see, spun from the tilting of the Earth toward solstice.

From the alley: the last two apples still hanging from the apple tree, the wilting of the final purple fall crocus, the blackening of the tall goldenrod, a handful of milkweed plants, pods splayed, silky seeds shining in the low sun.

Erik Drost

Early in the afternoon of the recent solar eclipse, I was cutting back zinnias in my garden.

Sparrows  chirped off and on and cicadas buzzed and cardinals and crows called once in a while.

A friend had called the day before. And he said he had heard that birds stopped singing in the middle of a solar eclipse as though they thought night had arrived.

Nicholas Erwin / Flickr Creative Commons

I left for New York in the fog and mist, and then an hour later, I drove into low, dark stratus clouds, and the wind came in strong from the northeast against me. The colors of middle autumn that would have been so rich and bright against the blue sky seemed dull and ominous to me. I looked for murmurations of starlings spinning together over the brown fields, but there seemed to be no life at all in the landscape. Traffic was loud and heavy all the way across Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

oak leaf
Wayne Noffsinger / Flickr Creative Commons

Everything is telling time, revealing the arrival of middle autumn.

The Pleiades, and the Hyades of Taurus, outrides of winter’s Orion, lie on the eastern horizon after dark, promising December.

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.

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