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.
 

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.

nicholas_gent / Flickr Creative Commons

Caring for the zinnias in late summer, I cultivate next to their roots, gently cut the bindweed that has curled around their stems. As I work, I think about my mother’s petunias and the rhubarb in my back yard in Marshfield, Wisconsin, and the raspberry patch where I gathered gallons of berries. I think about Jeanie’s rose garden of twenty years ago and her collection of lilies (they’re all done blooming for year..)

Nick Ares / Flickr Creative Commons

Last week’s Perseid meteor shower paralleled the onset of late summer. At this point in August, the pause between robinsong and insect calls is ending. July’s Dog Days never really materialized this year, and now the nights are dense with the ebb-tide chanting of crickets and katydids.

westpark / Flickr Creative Commons

Middle August brings the sun almost halfway between summer solstice and autumn equinox. It is a time that lies halfway between the chorus of birdsong that characterizes the first part of the year and the chanting of insects that marks transition to the second part.

eyeweed / Flickr Creative Commons

In my capacity as Poor Will, I was once called to the house of a woman who had probably grown the fattest tomato of the season in all of my village. Unfortunately, my visit was delayed several days, and when I arrived, the prize had decayed to a wad of mush.

But the lady had preserved it for me anyway in a plastic bag. She pulled it from the refrigerator, and held it up for me to see.

Brad Smith / Flickr Creative Commons

Markers for the transition week to August along the 40th Parallel include the blooming of purple ironweed, the ripening of the first blackberries, the beginning of the passage of monarch butterflies, the start of late-summer’s night cricket song, the flocking of starlings, the loud calls of the katydids at night, and elderberries darkening for wine.

palomelca / Flickr Creative Commons

Since I started my record of the weather and natural history, I have kept all my notes daily notes together - for example, all the July 20ths from 1979 through 2014 in one place. With that organization, I've been able to see how, in spite of the separate character of each 12-month cycle, the progress of the seasons remains nearly identical from one year to the next.

Leonora Enking / Flickr Creative Commons

Deep in July, the tide of summer reaches as far north as it can go then starts to slip away back toward the Gulf of Mexico. The rate of advance or retreat varies with each year, but the balance has always shifted by the middle of the year’s seventh month. The day's length becomes one to two minutes shorter every twenty-four hours, and countryside responds with changing color and sound.

Liz West / Flickr Creative Commons

My interest in gardening began with a few lettuce seeds and then progressed to a minor manifestation of voyeuristic back-to-the-landism. And now it has taken on a life of its own.

And of course, nothing is as simple as it seems.

What starts out as a pleasant journey into food or flowers can quickly become complicated by the addition of just a small amount of neurosis and self-doubt.

Bob Muller / Flickr Creative Commons

Look at this beautiful world, and read the truth In her fair page;
wrote the 19th century poet, William Cullen Bryant,
See every season brings
New change to her of everlasting youth—
he writes,
Still the green soil, with joyous living things
Swarms -- the wide air is full of joyous wings.

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