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
6:15 am
Tue May 13, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: May 13 - 19, 2014

Credit Charles Kaiser / Flickr Creative Commons

I have long been aware of the inconsistency of my memory in matters of the seasons and weather, as well as in my relationships with people.

Recent studies in neuroscience seem to support my personal hunch that my mind is spinning the past more than just a little.

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Nature
6:15 am
Tue May 6, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: May 6 - 12, 2014

Credit jcc_seveq / Flickr Creative Commons

When Torricelli invented the mercury barometer in 1644, he gave a novel gauge to the world of meteorological medicine.

A decrease in atmospheric pressure, the calm before the storm, had been associated with pain since the Golden Age of Greece. Theophrastus, one of Plato's students, knew that "if the feet swell, there will be a change to the south wind."

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Nature
1:33 pm
Tue April 29, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: April 29 - May 5, 2014

Credit HUS0 / Flickr Creative Commons

I had been set to name the upcoming new moon the Tulip Moon, which would have presided over the flowering of mid-season and late tulips throughout my village.

However, on Easter Sunday, my neighbor Moya announced over her south fence that she had found a preying mantis ootheca (egg sack) in her spirea bush, the same place she had found one last year.

We talked about the timing of her discovery, and I realized I had forgotten all about oothecas and should have anticipated her suggestion that the May moon really be called the Preying Mantis Moon.

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Nature
6:15 am
Tue April 22, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: April 22 - 28, 2014

Credit Olaf Gradin / Flickr Creative Commons

By the end of April, the season of middle spring starts to give way to late spring all along the 40th Parallel. Early spring’s crocus and henbit leaves yellow in the grass as the growing canopy turns the hillsides of emerald green. Now the woods are full of garlic mustard, golden seal, columbine, golden Alexander, sweet Cicely, Solomon’s seal, Jack in the pulpit, wood betony, wood hyacinth, spring cress, nodding trillium, larkspur and bellwort. Along the freeways daisies, yellow sweet clover, meadow goat’s beard and parsnips flower. Red and white clover blossom in the pasture.

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Nature
6:15 am
Tue April 15, 2014

Poor Will's Almanack: April 15 - 21, 2014

Credit Julie Kertesz / Flickr Creative Commons

The first seasons of the year are already gone now, bloodroot season, violet cress season, twinleaf season, snowdrop season, snow trillium season, so many more seasons. I've only watched a few of them, and I am wondering about what I've missed. They are fragments of a story, the meaning of which has always set me wondering.

I wonder about the meaning of the seasons of the landscape because I am wondering about my own seasons and what they mean. I watch them, and I am in suspense because I don't know exactly how they will turn out.

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