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.

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.

Moniek van Rijbroek / Flickr Creative Commons

The Sun enters its sign of Aquarius tomorrow, the 20th, foreshadowing late winter. I look around to see what that means here around me:

Starlings whistle in the distance, and a robin is chirping near the north garden. I heard a cardinal off and on between 8:00 and 9:00; soon they will be singing every morning.

Around the yard, I find one new wild strawberry leaf, one new waterleaf sprout. There is fresh growth on the Japanese honeysuckle, leaves dark violet, venturing out from the axils of their woody vines.

-JvL- / Flickr Creative Commons

The moon turned new just a few days ago, and now that moon, the Skunk Mating Moon, encourages skunks and other small mammals to break from their winter dormancy and wander for mates and food when thaws warm the nights

February’s moon is the Desert Wildflower Moon. When the deserts of the Southwestern United States bloom after the year’s early rains, then snowdrops blossom in the Midwest.

vladeb / Flickr Creative Commons

Although the second week of deep winter is often marked by severe weather and a landscape either dull and brown or hidden by snow, its nature can be known with just a little attention.

The name of Skunk Mating Moon suggests that, especially in milder winters, skunks do emerge to dig in your lawn as well as to look for mates. To those in need of hope that spring will eventually arrive, the smell of a skunk on the prowl is sweet and promising. It is, as well, a sign that other small mammals are getting ready to breed, and that owls are building nests in the woods.

marcin ejsmont / Flickr Creative Commons

Each season is the sum of its parts, and deep winter is defined by five major cold waves in much of the country. The first of these weather systems arrives this week, and the second usually by January 5th or 6th. The third and fourth systems, crossing the Mississippi near the 10th and 15th, redouble the cold and bring the lowest temperatures of the year. A fifth system near January 20 is often part of the January thaw, and the sixth and final cold wave of January is statistically the first of late winter, and it gradually leads into the Groundhog Day thaw early in February.

Stephen Little / Flickr Creative Commons

Today is the winter solstice. Well, it actually occurred at 11:48 last night where I live, and so I know the from astronomers the exact minute that the sun stood still and then began to move again toward summer.

Only the astronomers can actually see and measure that shift, of course, and I trust them to tell the truth. I take it on faith that the sun really will rise higher a little each day until daffodils flower and green leaves spread across the trees. Besides that, I have plenty of experience in such matters. I’m old. I know what always happens to winter.