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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.

fall leaves
Jay Joslin / Flickr Creative Commons

The canopy of leaves appeared solid throughout the hot summer, its entire nature dense and uniform, its shade thick and deep. Within a few days, that canopy will shatter deep into the jug of autumn. That jug, that earthen container takes it all.

Everything from the whole year past goes into the jug of October. Events and objects get mixed up in the tumble. The smooth wall of June is torn apart. The heat of July and August is filtered and cooled. All of the long green horizon crumbles.

The best sense of what we are in this place dissolves.

cardinal on bird feeder
Scott Thomas / Flickr Creative Commons

One summer a few years ago, I spent so much time sitting on the back patio just looking out into the garden. Every few days the blossoms of the shrubs and flowers changed. I filled the bird feeders every morning, and the birds rewarded my care with their presence.

Lounging on the patio, I saw more butterflies than I ever had before,  watched more bees than I had ever watched before – hover bees, carpenter bees, bumblebees, bee flies, and even a few honeybees.

I loved it.

crab apple
Heather Kaiser / Flickr Creative Commons

Yesterday, I went walking, found seed heads everywhere, dry rose petals, red rose hips I should have pruned, withered hydrangea blossoms covered in spiderwebs, Joe Pye weed bushy and brown like the burdock beside it, three blue spiderwort flowers blossoming out of season, hops heavy across the euonymous, oodles of black redbud seeds like manes in the branches, the soft green seeds of the fierce wood nettle, new waterleaf leaves, mottled grape vines, red crab apples bigger than I'd ever noticed before, stiff and prickly burrs of purple coneflowers, the unusual brightness of honeysuckle berr

corn
Theo Crazzolara / Flickr Creative Commons

This past weekend, I drove south through the full range of early fall, its different subseasons depending on the progress of the soybeans or corn or goldenrod or tobacco, depending on whether harvest complete or pending, depending on which trees were turning and how far.

fall leaf
compassrose_04 / Flickr Creative Commons

The time of early fall is an ambivalent time, a time of being on the edge. Summer is not really gone, but foliage is aging quickly and flowers are disappearing. The days may be warm and humid, but the sun is a March sun and could rise to frost on any morning.

I experience a vague excitement now, am in suspense as to just when the wind will change, look forward to the cold, feel relief at the end of the Dog Days, but I also wish that the season did not have to change so quickly.

monarch butterfly
Renee Grayson / Flickr Creative Commons

My Sunday  morning is quiet and lazy. Clear sky, the air soft and mild. An occasional breeze follows the butterflies: a giant swallowtail, two monarchs, three yellow tiger swallowtails, four cabbage whites.

The butterfly effect seems to move the floppy leaves of the castor beans and push the drifts of zinnias and cannas. The sidle of the flowers and foliage soothes me, and  I allow my ultimate concerns to settle into the deep time of wings and blossoms.

Goldrod in front of an old barn
Don O'Brien / Flick

The change of season always changes me. Weather and landscape, seem to be the obvious parts of that transformation.

I read a little about how other people react.

Ohio Sea Grant / Flickr Creative Commons

In his natural history of east-central Ohio, Idle Weeds, David Rains Wallace writes: “If time is a story, the present is merely a hiatus between the significant events that were and will be.

"If time is an ocean, however, the present is not less important than other moments, which stretch away on all sides, any more than a single water molecule in an ocean is less important than the others.”

sundial
Nick Olejniczak / Flickr Creative Commons

It seems that the same day never returns, that any act is done when it is done. It seems that at the end of August, summer is over. It seems that this summer can never come again.

Memory easily shows, however, that events do not end when they take place. Like the waves that form the Butterfly Effect, all happenings ripple time. And instead of receding from a present tense, this infinity of instances spins far out and then returns over and over again like a shower of shooting stars, shining children of comets.

katydid
Mark Beckemeyer / Flickr Creative Commons

As Late Summer begins, all the katydids sing after sundown.  They call out the close of the Dog Days, and even though heat often lingers, the rhythm of the season has shifted, its tones have been altered, colors and sounds and scents all pointing to fall.

Migration clucking among the robins increases.  Some days, there is a long and steady cardinal song before sunrise, then silence. Hummingbirds, wood ducks, Baltimore orioles and purple martins start to disappear south; their departure marks a quickening in the approach of Early Fall.

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