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.

Brooding hen with chicks
normanack / Flickr Creative Commons

Now it is possible that some listeners do not know about broody hens, and since this is clearly the month of the Broody Hen Moon, it may be helpful to discuss the subject here in the Almanack.

So anyway, what IS a broody hen. A broody person may be thoughtful and unhappy, moody and melancholy. But in Chicken World, Well, a broody hen is one that doesn’t want to give up her eggs. She wants them to hatch. That would seem reasonable, and if a rooster is about, and if the owner wants chicks, the broody hen can be a blessing.

Rene Rasmussen / Flickr Creative Commons

Instinctively summer is accepted as the normal condition of the earth,  writes naturalist, Edwin Way Teale.

Winter as the abnormal. Summer is ‘the way it should be.’ It is as though our minds subconsciously returned to some tropical beginning, some summer-filled Garden of Eden

I thought of these lines I drove back to Ohio from a brief trip to the Florida Keys this past month.

Cardinal in tree
Thomas Dwyer / Flickr Creative Commons

I write this from Sarasota, Florida: Complete semi-tropical habitat, no sign of winter. Looking back over today’s daybook from home in Ohio, I see how all the notes reach south, look forward.

sprouting peonies
Lorianne DiSabato / Flickr Creative Commons

Even as the cold breaks the Groundhog Day thaw, many signs appear of the broader scope of the season, reminders of what to watch for and what to do.

When the first fly gets in your house on a warm Late Winter day, then opossums  and skunks wander the back roads at night.

When the red tips of peonies push out just a little from the ground, then blue jays are courting and wild turkeys to are gathering in flocks.

When red-winged blackbirds come to build their nests, then the maple sap should already be running.

pussywillows in February
Eve Fraser-Corp / Flickr Creative Commons

Once the leaves are down in the fall, I avoid looking at winter. I am always looking for spring, for the moment at which all the best of the year still lies ahead.

Sometimes I think anticipation is better than fulfillment. Promises are better than what is promised. Hope is better than than what is hoped for. When dreams come true, they are over. Happily ever after is often better as a wish.

moon on a blue sky
Paul Cooper / Flickr Creative Commons

The Pussy Willow Cracking Moon becomes the new Lambing and Kidding Moon at 1:45 a.m. on January 24.

This moon presides over the period during which most sheep and goats give birth. 

Complementing this surge in the farming year, the first week of the Lambing and Kidding Moon opens skunk cabbage in the swamps.

The second week of this moon brings cardinals into song every morning about half an hour before dawn.

By full moon time, doves join the cardinals, and maple sap runs in the maples.

winter robin
Tom Lee / Flickr Creative Commons

The year seems to pause now, frozen in the middle of deep winter, but natural history and our own hope for  spring continue to be the sum of our observations. 

Since there is no limit to what a person might watch and record, an endless winter is only in the eye of the beholder. Like every other season, winter accumulates, is the product of the sensations it causes, is only what we see it to be, is all that we see it to be.

winter sky featuring orion
Rob Pettengill / Flickr Creative Commons

The rising of Orion after 9:00 p.m. continues to be the most dramatic event of an Deep Winter evening. The seven sisters, the Pleiades, and the constellation Taurus, precede it.

Due north of Polaris, the Little Dipper hangs in the sky overhead before midnight. North-northeast, the Big Dipper hugs the horizon. Due east, Cancer has just come up. Due south, the gangly formations of Cetus, Fornax and Eridanus wander along the tree line. In the far west, Aquarius pushes Delphinus into the Pacific Ocean.

smilla4 / Flickr Creative Commons

Although the  character of an entire season is difficult to predict, particular periods of the winter are subject to lunar forces that affect tides as well as the severity of storms.

The first major storm period of the New Year (after the New Year’s Eve weather)  can be expected to occur between January 9 and 14, when the continent is subject to full moon as well as to perigee, the moon’s position closest to Earth.

The next storm period arrives at the end of the January thaw with the new moon coinciding with the second-last front of the month, around January 24 or 25.

winter moon
class M planet / Flickr Creative Commons

Even as the cold deepens, the promises of the whole year ahead lie out before us in the names of its moons. Flollowing the last of December’s Silent Cricket Moon,

December 26, 2019: The Pussy Willow Cracking Moon cracks the darkness of winter with occasional revelations of its soft catkins

January 24: At the end of January, The Lambing and Kidding Moon starts the year for shepherds and goatherds as most lambs and kids are born.