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.

pursyapt / Flickr Creative Commons

This week marks the beginning of middle spring and the start of spinach, carrot, beet, turnip, peas, onion and potato planting time throughout the central portion of the United States. Collard and kale and Brussels sprout sets can be set out in the garden. Pansies line the walkways, geraniums sometimes appear on porches.

Middle spring wildflower season gets underway in the first week of middle spring: Violets, bluebells, twinleaf, Dutchman’s britches, bloodroot, purple cress, swamp buttercup and hepatica come into flower.

schizoform / Flickr Creative Commons

In the last days of the Robin Chorus Moon, pollen falls from the on pussy willow catkins, and mosquitos become hungrier. Moths appear at your porch light. The foliage of spiderwort, yarrow, stonecrop, mallow, phlox, columbine, coneflower, waterleaf, snow-on-the-mountain, goldenrod, buttercup, New England aster, Shasta daisy and Queen Anne’s lace has grown up tall enough to promise summer.

goodsophism / Flickr Creative Commons

In this second-last week of early spring, when the robin chorus begins before sunrise, then pollen forms on pussy willow catkins, and the first mosquito bites, then the first spring beauty is budding, and the foliage of yarrow, mallow, phlox, columbine, coneflower, waterleaf, goldenrod, buttercup, snow-on-the mountain, New England aster, and Queen Anne’s lace is coming up.

Tim Lehrian / Flickr Creative Commons

Daffodil blossoms are the outriders of the fourth week of Early Spring, a sign that Virginia bluebells have come up from winter ground and that raspberry bushes are developing fresh leaves. As you drive the freeways or the backroads, you may see wild onions are getting lanky, a sign that the foliage of Middle Spring's wildflowers is growing back in the woods and fields: Jacob's ladder, ragwort, leafcup, spring beauties, wood mint, ground ivy, catchweed, moneywort, waterleaf, hemlock, and parsnip.

Ricardo Camacho / Flickr Creative Commons

The essayist Rebecca Solnit says that The very notion of giving meaning to something is premised on a cosmology in which things don’t have it yet.

So, for example, when I talk about the meaning of spring, I am entering a verbal landscape in which the different elements of that season make no sense – possess no meaning – in and of or by themselves.

Spring, then, and the meaning of spring are not self-evident. They depend on our construction of them.

inger maaike / Flickr Creative Commons

It's time to be paying attention, time to be getting ready.

When you hear mourning doves singing before dawn, then organize all your buckets for tapping maple syrup.

When you hear red-winged blackbirds, then the maple sap should already be running.

When yellow aconites bloom, then spread fertilizer in the field and garden so that it can work its way into the ground before you start planting.

When the first daffodil foliage is two inches tall, then go to the wetlands to find skunk cabbage in bloom.

Lorianne DiSabato / Flickr Creative Commons

By this point in the year, my daybook of events in nature reveals many of the pieces of the fabric which forms, for me, early spring.

On February 16,1983, I noted that cardinals were singing at 7:00 a.m. sharp, something that couldn't have happened two weeks earlier.

On February 16, 1990, I wrote: "Some pussy willows in front of the house have emerged completely. Maple buds are swelling. Tulips are up three inches, daffodils, four, garlic four to six inches, so many things pushing out."

Rebecca Siegel / Flickr Creative Commons

In his essay, “The Landscape of Home,” David Sopher writes how a person  “becomes … a geographer of the micro-region… putting together...a mental composite of features that tell of home: a profile of hillside, the hue and texture of houses, the pitch of church steeples, the color of cattle.”

lblkytn / Flickr Creative Commons

As February begins, natural history shows the growing power of the spring. The year is gathering a momentum in which every sound and movement carries meaning.

During the soft nights of the Groundhog Day Thaw, skunks venture out to feed. Salamanders court and breed in warmer microclimates. Deer gather together throughout the month to feed in herds.

Charles D P Miller / Flickr Creative Commons

Late winter begins today throughout the United States. In the South, the early wildflowers start to bloom; in the North, the January thaw forecasts spring.

Along the 40th Parallel, about halfway between the Gulf of Mexico and the Canadian Border, cardinals and doves begin to sing before sunrise.

In just a couple of weeks, the first red-winged blackbirds arrive in the Ohio Valley. Not long afterwards, the first snowdrops flower and the maple sap runs.