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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.

flowers in field
Tommy Clark / Flickr Creative Commons

I wrote my recent annual almanack as a horoscope in nature. The word horoscope comes from two Greek words, hora, which means hour or time, and skopos, which means observer. The time observer is a horoscoper, and for the horoscoper  who watches the seasons, an “almanack horoscope in nature” can offer a useful guide to the galaxy as well as to one’s own neighborhood.

In The Emerald Tablet, an ancient text by Hermes Trismegistus, the author attempts to explain the astrological mysteries of the cosmos. The work contains the phrase: “As above, so below.”

fall corn field against a cloudy sky
Michael Patterson / Flickr Creative Commons

Driving south toward the river valley, I head into an autumn thunderstorm. The soybeans are yellow, and the corn is old. Most black walnut trees are bare, fruit exposed and swinging in the rain. Small white asters and goldenrod are in late bloom; chicory is still open.

milkweed pod
qurlyjoe / Flickr Creative Commons

The days continue clear and bright. Two weeks ago, much of the landscape was still deep, late-summer green. Now, a few maples and dogwoods are orange, or red. Cottonwoods and catalpas and sweet gums and shagbark hickories are yellow. Grape vines and nettles are bleached with age. Locust leaves drizzle steadily to the undergrowth. The serviceberries are almost bare. The black walnut trees keep only their last fruit. Purple poison ivy and Virginia creeper outline the changes.

forest in autumn
csm242000 Photography / Flickr Creative Commons

For a number of years, I have marked the position of the Sun on a wall in a certain room of my house, noting how it not only moves throughout the day, but also how it moves with the seasons.

I have followed that practice, sometimes doing it to tell the time of year (although it can do that as well as any calendar), but mostly because of the way it makes me feel.

Paying attention to where and when the sunlight comes through my window helps me to feel cared for. Strangely, it makes me feel like I have been chosen.

jumpseed plant
Fritz Flohr Reynolds / Flickr Creative Commons

Among the many signs of summer’s end, the maturing of the jumpseed plant is one of the more dependable. In full bloom, it attracts clusters of cabbage white butterflies that play and court around it. And when its inconspicuous white flowers have turned to brittle seeds and jump to the ground as you run your thumb and forefinger up their stem, then the first week of Early Fall has arrived.

close up of a bumblebee on a sunflower
portitzer / Flickr Creative Commons

In fields all across the country, the last wildflowers of the year come into bloom: the white and violet asters, orange beggarticks, burr marigolds, tall goldenrod, zigzag goldenrod and Japanese knotweed.

It may all be too much for the bees. They have been working since the end of April, and the other day when I found a bumblebee motionsless on its side in the middle of a red zinnia, I wondered if it were overworked, drunk with nectar, a debauchee of dew or simply sleepy.

A squirrel appears from behind a tree.
Andrew Johnston / Flickr Creative Commons

For me, nostalgia often accompanies the steady transformation of the landscape. Memories proliferate, and my mind travels back and forth through the concentric circles of the years, sifting images and feelings, recent and distant events, sorting and ruminating, nothing making much sense.

This morning, I went outside into fog and dew.  I saw that a big fat orb-weaver spider had made its web across the shed door overnight. I remember this time last year, I wasn’t paying attention and walked into the same kind of web in front of the same door.

Tiger Swallowtail on Orange Flower
Vicki DeLoach / Flickr Creative Commons

When I look back and try to understand what happened the other day, I reach for impressions and feelings that, in recollection, become the story. Although I had a number of appointments and other things I had to do, I only remember now that the breeze was cool and the sun was hot throughout the afternoon.

And that I saw so many butterflies, many cabbage white butterflies, spinning in love randori above the red and orange and yellow zinnias. Tiny blue butterflies, azures, fluttered down into the faded bee balm.

rolls of hay in a late summer field
Let Ideas Compete / Flickr Creative Commons

Even though the summer may be hot and humid and  seemingly endless, its stability is deceptive. Sometimes a cold front around August 10th is especially chilly, breaking the stagnation of the Dog Days.

Sometimes leaf miners lace the locust trees, creating patches of gray and brown in the tree line. Sometimes a few maples turn red and stand out like the hand of October from all the other trees of August.

Bird calls have changed during the past month, and the crickets and katydids are louder.

blackberries in buckets
henrybloomfield / Flickr Creative Commons

When Deep Summer’s wildflowers start to pale, then blackberries redden and turn sweet and black, perfect for cobblers and jam. And then, fittingly enough, the Black-Eyed Susan Moon, reaching perigee (its position closest to Earth) on August 10, becomes the Blackberry Jam Moon the very next day.

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