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.



8:15 am
Tue October 22, 2013

Poor Will's Almanack: October 22 - 28, 2013

Credit Flickr Creative Commons user AndyArthur

This past summer, Sylvia sent me an effusive note about finding a toad in the grass. She was “feeling lucky,” she said. And she went on: “Oh yes, lucky, so I got down on my hands and knees…I didn’t want to miss a single detail…such serious eyes for one so young regarding me with great solemnity.”

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8:15 am
Tue October 15, 2013

Poor Will's Almanack: October 15 - 21, 2013

Credit Flickr Creative Commons user ThiagoMartins

It is almost a month past equinox, and the sun shines deeper through my south windows. I cut back the summer bamboo to allow more heat and light for my greenhouse plants. I fit my schedule to the shortening days.

In September, I bought a new fica tree that reaches twelve feet, almost to the top of my sun room. I worry about it because it is so big and so vulnerable to the cold. I want it to be warm and safe in the winter to come, and so I have put caulking and glazing and the dulling of drafts on my list for autumn.

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8:15 am
Tue October 8, 2013

Poor Will's Almanack: October 8 - 14, 2013

Credit Flickr Creative Commons user M.Giffords

I was pushing away the locust and ash leaves that had fallen on a patch of my garden. The leaves were just the tip of the season, the latest in the layers of the year.

I moved a little deeper, staying just in one place, going past the stalks of the violet phlox that had bloomed here in August, and the old seed pods of the orange day lilies that had flowered in July, past the the ectoskeleton of a cicada from late June.

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7:59 am
Tue October 1, 2013

Poor Will's Almanack: October 1 - 7, 2013

Credit Flickr Creative Commons user K.Hurley

I am used to knowing where I am and even who I am by what I see and name around me. I tell my time that way, too.

But when I visited my daughter in Italy this past June, we walked the fields of Umbria, and we crossed over to Sicily and then to Sardinia, and I was surrounded by plants I could not name.

In the Mediterranean landscape, I saw shapes that would have been so simple for even an amateur botonizer to identify, but which were, to me, plants of a parallel universe.

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8:15 am
Tue September 24, 2013

Poor Will's Almanack: September 24 - 30, 2013

Credit Flickr Creative Commons user Rachel James

I walk the alleys some mornings and I have watched how gardens become bedraggled and overgrown with weeds at this point in the autumn, and all the intent of the gardener seems to be overgrown as well.

Gardens, like houses or yards or jobs or cars or families are certainly products of intent – either directly or indirectly. And the intrusion of natural decay or lack of care, in contrast, belies a breakdown of intent and application.

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