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

mshipp / Flickr Creative Commons

The stars are a steady, accessible natural calendar and reveal the state of the landscape as well as the weather or trees or plants. With an inexpensive star chart or a sky map from the Internet, you can tell the time of year from your own yard, watch the sky bring on late autumn, early winter, deep winter, later winter, early spring.

k4dordy / Flickr Creative Commons

This is the second week of the Toad and Frog Migration Moon, the second week of the Sun in Scorpio.  And this is also the week that Daylight Savings Time ends throughout the country, clocks falling back an hour at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, and making the mornings a little brighter for the next month or so, more like the mornings of early fall.

The evenings, though, become winter dark as sundown is suddenly moved up to within just a few minutes of its solstice setting.

Mike Deal / Flickr Creative Commons

Tonight, when Earth crosses the vast remains of Halley’s Comet, it reveals that debris as the Orionid meteors, shooting past the post-midnight sword and shield of the constellation Orion in the southeast.

Then on Thursday, October 23rd, the dark Toad and Frog Migration Moon replaces the Hickory Nutting Moon, calling the last of the toads and frogs to find their winter habitats, often the same location in which they emerged as tadpoles.

Peppysis / Flickr Creative Commons

The sun seems to move lower and lower these days, rising further in the southeast, setting further in the southwest, about to abandon its residence in the boxy constellation of Libra.

Now the Summer Triangle with its brightest stars, Deneb, Lyra and Altair, has moved deep into the west after dark, following the lead of Mars in Scorpius. From the eastern horizon, the Pleiades, the seven sisters of the winter, are rising, leading on the red eye of Taurus and Orion’s vast shield.

Christoph Kummer / Flickr Creative Commons

These days, I’m a little more confused than usual. Instead of feeling invigorated by this October, I'm feeling lethargic.

pontia / Flickr Creative Commons

When the milkweed pods come open, then frost season is on the way, and Canadian geese, great-crested flycatchers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, eastern wood peewees and bank swallows move down their flyways toward the Gulf of Mexico. Buzzards gather at their roosts. Crows are the only birds to call before dawn. Monarch butterflies become more numerous, still visit the late phlox and the zinnias in the afternoon sun; other insects, however, become less common in the field and garden as the number of pollen-bearing flowers dwindles.

Carmen Eisbär / Flickr Creative Commons

In the final weeks of September, a rapid deterioration of all the wildflowers except the goldenrod and asters occurs. And after these last flowers go to seed in early October, there is no new generation of blooming plants to replace them. Except for the few varieties that open during second spring (the warm days in late fall), the final species that grow to maturity within in most of the United States and Canada are in the process of bearing fruit.

Jeffrey James Pacres / Flickr Creative Commons

I often think about an old notebook my friend Diana loaned me decades ago, the journal of a man, long deceased, containing notes in pencil for almost every day between September 1950 and December 1952.

The entries placed weather statistics and baseball scores side-by-side with phrases about marriages, anniversaries, election results, births, deaths, fishing and digging for worms. I assume that some of these things were more important to him than others, but the journal gives no clues.

Celina Massa / Flickr Creative Commons

Catching late summer in its great circular web, the giant arabesque orbweaver spins its patterns in time with the last wildflowers and the first dusky shadows on the high trees. In the woods webs of the smaller but more common micrathena spiders often block your August paths.

lcm1863 / Flickr Creative Commons

It is the last week of late summer. Toads and frogs have begun migration. You may see them hopping through your grass or across your walkway. Showers of apple leaves, locust leaves, black walnut, hackberry leaves come down in the windier afternoons. All the peaches are ripe. Yellow jackets seek the windfalls.

The chiggers have gone for the year, so have the fireflies. Goldenrod is turning. Once in a while a monarch butterfly defies the environmental odds, flies past you south. Streaks of gold appear on the silver olives.