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.

Ways To Connect

Scott W / Flickr Creative Commons

The tracking of leafturn and leaf fall from specific trees throughout the autumn offers a semblance of control to the tracker. And an annual record of the gradual transformation and shedding of those trees, often reveals the character of an entire year.

Like counting fallen leaves, however, the practice of recording the progress of autumn with such landmarks may be simply an exercise in fantasy, a comforting pretense of lay scientific observation, as though the state of Mr. Danielson’s beech or Lil’s maple really mattered.

jasmic / Flickr Creative Commons

When I am restless in the winter, the landscape around me doesn't seem enough. These few acres of woods and homes are just a taste, only a promise of the great world.

But when I go too far away, I gather my landmarks of home around me. Distant locations only make sense against my private gauge.

Time benefits from a master point like Greenwich; from that arbitrary set point, we can know the sun throughout the world, and even plot the instant and the physical place where the past and future blend to a single day, balance in a temporal vacuum.

Blossom Vydrina / Flickr Creative Commons

The seasonal clock has advanced by the span of three moons since the last leaves fell to the ground. The first weeds and wildflowers of 2015 were already rising slowly through November and December: hemlock, lamium, garlic mustard, creeping Charlie, sweet rockets, sweet Cicely, dock, skunk cabbage, wood mint, watercress, mouse-eared chickweed. And now, the tips of snowdrops and snow crocus and daffodils have emerged.

John Kennedy / Flickr Creative Commons

Late winter is the anteroom to early spring, growing the birdsong, rousing small mammals to courtship, drawing the first bulbs from under the snow.

Now comes the close of winter berryfall: the red honeysuckle berries have long ago fallen or been taken by birds. The orange fruit of the evergreen euonymous vines and the bittersweet vines has completed its planting. Overwintering robins eat and seed the crab apples.

Sam Leech / Flickr Creative Commons

By the end of January, deep winter moves to its close, and late winter is carried into the nation by the lengthening days and the relentless south winds that always follow each cold spell.

The sun approaches a declination of 19 degrees on the 25th, putting it at its mid-November noontime height, and marking more than 20 percent of the way to spring equinox.

John Winkelman / Flickr Creative Commons

Now when the nation lies exactly in the middle of its peak snow period and average temperatures are the lowest of the year, then the advance of spring quickens, and the night starts contracting by two to three minutes each day all the way into June. Crows know all about the expanding daylight. Their migration cycle typically starts at the early edge of the night’s retreat. Junco movement begins in mid-January, too, just as the sun comes into Aquarius.

Rebecca Stanek / Flickr Creative Commons

In some ways, nothing seems to change within the center of Deep Winter. Still, what may appear to be the status quo is actually transformation – and its pieces measure the progress of Earth toward equinox.

Last year’s plants, are all giving way to the weather, leading the land back toward the sun. The hulls of last June’s sweet rockets and August’s wild cucumbers are empty, brittle and delicate like shed snakeskin. Asters and boneset seeds are gone. Milkweed pods are stained and empty.

Andrea Marutti / Flickr Creative Commons

One of the easiest ways to get a little control over winter is to count the major cold fronts that reach your house between now and the middle of February (when earliest spring often arrives along the 40th Parallel). See how many of those cold fronts you can record on your calendar. If you have a barometer or thermometer, you can follow them by making graph of ups and downs! Or you can cheat by checking the Internet.

blmiers2 / Flickr Creative Commons

“We live in memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope…into our future,” states the philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno.

Of course, once you have uncovered the span the year's cycle, you can see the past and tell the future. Stasis and passage become inseparable. Awareness of landmarks in the seasons encompasses not only what was but what still may be.

Randi Hausken / Flickr Creative Commons

The shrinking Sandhill Crane Moon wanes throughout the week darkening the longest nights of the year, and continuing to call the cranes to the south, until on the 21st it becomes the Marauding Mouse Moon, the first day of the worst time of rodents in kitchens and basements and attics as those creatures flee from the cold.

That moon becomes new at 8:36 in the evening of the 21st, just 33 minutes later than the official moment of winter solstice, and at the very same time that the sun moves into its deep winter sign of Capricorn.

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