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.

Maciej Lewandowski / Flickr Creative Commons

Early this spring, I was working in my greenhouse, pinching back stalky plants, when I accidentally broke off a long stem of a geranium plant.  I placed that stalk in a tall, clear vase half full of water and put on the kitchen table.

This simple bouquet soon gave birth to a squiggly mosquito larva that added an extra interest to breakfast time.

R.A. Killmer / Flickr Creative Commons

If this were the year 2021 instead of 2020, the seventeen-year cicadas would be emerging  all around the park close to where I live. Sixteen years ago, I found them after work when I stopped by the woods and made my way along the path above the river.

Under the low, two-foot canopy of touch-me-nots and wood nettles I found the elusive insects. They had just emerged from the ground and were resting quietly all around, waiting for me. They were an inch or two in length. Their wings were shiny and gold, their eyes red, their bodies black.

ewan traveler / Flickr Creative Commons

This week brings on the collapse of late spring, the accumulation of leafing and flowering overloading the landscape until it is overcome by summer.

As May grows and moves toward June, there is a darkening and a maturing of the leaves.  The mix of chlorophyll thickens in foliage, and as the sun moves higher in the sky, it strikes the earth at a more direct, less flattering angle.

MrSefe / Flickr Creative Commons

This week brings blooming season for sweet Cicely and May apples all along the 40th Parallel throughout the East and Middle Atlantic Region. Mayfly Season begins along the rivers and lakeshores. Weevil Season comes in throughout alfalfa fields. Thrush Season, Baltimore Oriole Season, Catbird Season and Scarlet Tanager Season come to the undergrowth. It’s Bullfrog Season in the swamp, Gray Tree Frog season in the trees and Spitbug Season in the parsnips.

White Mulberry
Matthew Beziat / Flickr Creative Commons

The center of Late Spring is already thickening the canopy over early gardens. Sycamores, Osage, cottonwoods and oaks are leafing out, and white mulberries and buckeyes blossom.

Along the sidewalks, purple iris, orange poppies, sweet William, bridal-wreath spirea and snowball viburnum have appeared. The delicate Korean lilacs join the fading standard lilac varieties, and bright rhododendrons replace the azaleas.

Crowcombe Al / Flickr Creative Commons

Some days, I take stock of all the things I find happening in the yard. When I do that, the process seems to stop time, placing it in boxes of measurements and names.

Last week I took that sort of inventory, and this is some of what I found:

Theophilos Papadopoulos / Flickr Creative Commons

I recently came across my old copy of the Bach flower remedies and, browsing through its pages, I was once again attracted to the ideas of the early 20th century homeopath, Dr. Edward Bach, who believed that nature was the source of all healing, that the essence of certain plants and flowers could, together with the right attitude and the body’s own immune system, help to manage disease.

Then, I perused the herbals I had collected over the years, and I ruminated on alternative thinking, more ancient thinking, really, about the resources of the world around me.

Tony Alter / Flickr Creative Commons

Here on the cusp of April, one might use any number of seasonal markers to imagine the progress of Middle Spring. Beginning with daffodils today in the Ohio Valley, a person could, for instance, say that the road to May was really the road south past fresh honeysuckle leaves, dandelion blossoms, and forsythia flowers, past the blossoming pear trees, redbuds, and crab apple trees of the Carolinas, then the open dogwoods of Georgia, and ending finally with azaleas in New Orleans.

comma butterfly
Marilyn Peddle / Flickr Creative Commons

By this week of the year, butterflies can emerge on the warmest days, and I am on the lookout for a particular orange butterfly, a Polygonia, to be exact.

I first saw him on Christmas morning when I got up about 5:00 and listened to the wind and rain drive against the southeast corner of the house.

virginia bluebells
epenland / Flickr Creative Commons

Now at the beginning of Middle Spring, when pollen covers the pussy willows, then honeysuckle, mock orange, privet, wild multiflora roses, lilac, black raspberry and coralberry leaves break out from their buds, and that is a signal for cornus mas and lungwort to flower and for mourning cloak butterflies and cabbage moths to navigate the warming days past equinox. A little later come the question-mark and tortoise-shell butterflies and then the white-spotted skippers.