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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.

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.

late summer sunset
Till Westermayer / Flickr Creative Commons

Now in the sign of Leo, the Sun follows the ecliptic down more quickly toward autumn equinox, and time seems to accelerate as the days shorten.. Throughout its residence in Cancer, the Sun moved only a small fraction of the way toward September. Under Leo through late July and middle August, it descends three times more rapidly than it did in Early Summer, toward Virgo and Early Fall. And by the start of the second week of August, it will be one third of its way to autumn.

Bill Felker, the host of Poor Will's Almanack on WYSO returned to the Book Nook to discuss his latest project. Recently Bill decided to engage in another book publishing venture in addition to his annual almanacks. Over the years Bill has been keeping meticulous daily journals of his thoughts, observations, and meditations. Bill decided to take his voluminous daily records and compile them into monthly editions that are now available for readers to peruse and savor.

Jupiter and Venus against the summer sky.
Steve Elliot / Flickr Creative Commons

Last week, walking west down my street late in the evening, I could see Venus straight ahead of me, a deep red-orange marker in the sky in the very last of sundown.

I looked up and around, trying to find the Big Dipper and the Summer Triangle, prominent stars of a July night. I could see Jupiter in the south to my left, but haze or high clouds kept the constellations hidden. The moon, new and dark, had set an hour or so earlier, and I was alone with the planets.

Shadowed trees on an orange summer sunset
Jim Mullhaupt / Flickr Creative Commons

The Sun completes its residence in Cancer this week and enters the Late Summer sign of Leo on July 23, having moved about an eighth of the way toward autumn equinox.

The decline of the Sun into Leo always brings a visible change to the landscape, and that change can influence attitudes and behavior.

ear of corn with tassle
caligula1995 / Flickr Creative Commons

The Sun’s powerful position in Cancer throughout the month is enhanced by the position of Sirius, the Dog Star, located almost due south at noon and contributing (according to tradition) to the Dog Days of Middle Summer. With  all their heat, Cancer and Sirius ripen the landscape.

Field corn is ready to tassel all along the 40th Parallel. Sweet corn and beans and tomatoes fill the farmers’ markets. Winter wheat is ready to be cut. Carrots and beets are ready to be pulled for supper. Broccoli has headed. Deep Summer’s tomatoes and beans are coming in.

Star trails on a summer night's sky
bobthemagicdragon / Flickr Creative Commons

At 10:36 in the morning of  July 6, the Earth reaches aphelion, the point at which it is about 153 million kilometers (its greatest distance) from the Sun. Aphelion occurs almost exactly six months from perihelion, Earth’s position closest to the Sun (about 148 million kilometers).

When one thing is happening, says the first law of phenology, something else is happening, too. Finches in the thistledown, cicadas calling through the day, katydids at night, all measure the Sun and pull the Dog Days in.

elderberry flowers
Allison Giguere / Flickr Creative Commons

Inside the four common seasonal categories – winter, spring, summer, fall -  lie clusters of small parallel seasons that measure time inside of time, creating by their colors and shapes and sounds and tastes and smells the broader temporal divisions.

As June comes to a close, taking with it the longest days of Early Summer, the subseasons that follow solstice create a patchwork of interlocking phases of the landscape’s transformation.

closeup of pink thistle
Joshua Mayer / Flickr Creative Commons

These are the longest days of the year, and Thursday the 21st is solstice, the peak of the solar tide, splitting Earth time in two, the Sun leaving Early Summer and Gemini, entering Deep Summer and Cancer.

Obscured by daylight, the consellations that accompany the sign of  Cancer during the day include Orion in the middle of the southern sky at noon, the potent Dog Star, Sirius, low behind him. Pisces lies in the west, Leo in the east, Draco in the north.

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