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 September 17, 2013

Poor Will's Almanack: September 17 - 23, 2013

Credit Flickr Creative Commons user hep73

Many autumns ago, my wife and I camped at the Cumberland Island National Seashore. Accessible only by ferryboat, Cumberland is the southernmost of the Georgia barrier islands, a wooded retreat with miles of white and empty beaches….and small herds of wild horses.

When we returned home, I started thinking for some reason about the wild horses, and I then decided that there should be a herd or two of wild horses in the suburban village where I lived, and I came up with a few reasons why this should be so.

Read more
8:15 am
Tue September 10, 2013

Poor Will's Almanack: September 10 - 16, 2013

Credit Flickr Creative Commons user jayandd

As frost time comes closer, I bring in the tomato plants I seeded in July, and I set up the greenhouse for winter.

The bugs and I will fight there until the new year. It will be a fair fight up until then, but they will begin to win as January ends, their ability to breed outlasting my ability to keep up with them, or my hope of overcoming them.

I could, I suppose, eliminate the insects with strong andefficient poisons, but they are part of a psychological system as well as an ecological system I set in place each year.

Read more
8:15 am
Tue September 3, 2013

Poor Wil's Almanack: September 3 - 9, 2013

Credit Flickr Creative Commons user Joe Dsilva

The past fifty years have demonstrated how small the world really is. We all live under threat of the same atomic storm. The continents have been homogenized by data and technology. We have learned we are part of one another.

This awareness of interdependence has done much good. The world, however, is even smaller than some would have us think, and, unfortunately, the art of defining that space for oneself has been lost. It is considered back-to-the-landish for any layman to read the sky; reading one's own environment is almost unheard of.

Read more
8:15 am
Tue August 27, 2013

Poor Will's Almanack: August 27 – September 2, 2013

Credit tgpotterfield

As September begins and bird migrations intensify, Taurus and the Pleiades rise late in the dark sky, and those constellations remain visible at night until middle spring when their disappearance coincides with the birds' return. The day's length drops below thirteen hours all along the 40th Parallel now, down about 120 minutes from its longest span at the middle of June.

Read more
8:15 am
Tue August 20, 2013

Poor Will's Almanack: August 20 - 26, 2013

Credit Flickr Creative Commons user Autan

I was sitting at a beach along Lake Michigan. The wind was gentle and the sun was hot, and I dozed and read and stared out at the clear blue, blue sky and water. In the distance, sailboats moved across the horizon, and seagulls bobbed in the waves.

Things were all in order. Lovers walked hand in hand along the shore in front of me. Children built sand castles. Fathers raced with their sons, and mothers huddled and chatted with their daughters.

Read more