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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.

honeybee on flower
kuhnmi / Flickr Creative Commons

A season is always the sum of its parts. The pieces of Early Spring are few and subtle, but Middle Spring, reaching its zenith this week, leaves little to the imagination. The meager inventories of change that characterized equinox quickly fill with new details. Trees leaf and flowers bloom, unmistakable, their numbers catching the eye of almost everyone.

ant on flower
vivek raj / Flickr Creative Commons

According to some recent studies, an insect Armageddon is taking place throughout the United States and Europe. Some scientists project that over half of all insect species could disappear by the end of the 21st century.

The insect population around my yard has diminished markedly in just two years. I used to be able to find angleworms under the mulch near my sidewalk. Last year, no worms. Ants used to build entrances to their nests in the cracks of the sidewalk. No more ants.  Scorpion flies, aphids and beeflies were once plentiful in my garden, but no longer.

cows and horses in pasture
Till Westermayer / Flickr Creative Commons

Back in 2005, my friend Ruby (who was 95 at the time), had seen cows standing knee deep in mud, and she saw one of them switch its tail, and that, she declared, was a sign of spring.

Indeed, under the Cows Switching Their Tails Moon, the signs are all about. Toads and green frogs sing, ducklings and goslings hatch. Flowering pears and plums and apples and cherries bloom and set their fruit.

Forsythia
slgckgc / Flickr Creative Commons

No matter the weather, April almost always means middle spring right around the corner, and, especially if the early spring has been cold, it could be a good time to count the weeks until summer.

Lukasz Rawa / Flickr Creative Commons

Often, the landscape still seems to lie in winter even when the sun says spring. But the season takes on its character from many cues and signs, or what anthropologist Keith Basso calls “mnemonic pegs.” A person might use such pegs, formed by objects or events, like blooming daffodils or singing birds, to formulate what anthropologists call a “topogeny,” a listing of phenomena that creates maps or paths.

tulips
tanakawho / Flickr Creative Commons

This week of the year, as Early Spring deepens and the Sun moves from Pisces toward warming Aries,  I keep looking for the colors and sounds that mark the path away from winter.

When I look back at my daybook, I see that tulips form one of the borders of time that appear between yellow daffodils and the gold of forsythia. After all, without such borders and markers there is no time or spring at all. And markers like tulips are like themes in songs that weave great music.

cabbage butterfly
Brad Smith / Flickr Creative Commons

On the 6th of March The Cabbage White Butterfly Moon is new.

And white cabbage butterflies are the surest sign of the full sweep of Early Spring. Once you notice those butterflies, then you know the more elusive mourning cloak butterflies and the question mark butterflies and the tortoise shell butterflies and the tiny blues are flying too.

daffodils
CameliaTWU / Flickr Creative Commons

Yes, it is the second week of Early Spring. But it doesn’t really look like spring. So it could be time to start counting the weeks until it really does look like spring. Here is one way to count:

Blue Jay
Mark Moschell / Flickr Creative Commons

The shift in weather that multiplies the signs of spring takes place within a week of Cross Quarter Day, the day on which the sun reaches halfway to spring equinox, February 18th.

Three or four good thaws, sometimes lasting a week apiece, have already come up from the south before then. Bulbs made progress during each of them, foliage rising ever so slowly though the soft ground.

cardinal sitting on a branch
Jennifer Boyer / Flickr Creative Commons

It's almost Early Spring. Time to be getting ready.

When you hear mourning doves singing before dawn, then organize all your buckets for tapping maple sap.

When you hear red-winged blackbirds whistling in the wetlands, then the maple sap should already be running.

When titmice and cardinals sing throughout the morning, then check your chicken flock for mites.

When bright yellow aconites bloom, then spread fertilizer in the field and garden so that it can work its way into the ground before spring planting.

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