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.

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.

summer in Hocking Hills
Brian Wolfe / Flickr Creative Commons

In his book, Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane writes about the role of imagination in a person’s approach to space and place. The mountains that people climb, he writes, must first exist and be conquered in their minds.

When he actually climbed mountains, Macfarlane discovered “that the mountains one gazes at, reads about, dreams of and desires are not the mountains one climbs.” The real mountains are “matters of hard, steep rock and freezing snow…of vertigo…of hypertension, nausea and frostbite.”

ripening summer blackberries
sogni_hal / Flickr Creative Commons

The philosopher and psychologist Carl Jung used the word, “synchronicity” to describe "temporally coincident occurrences" that may be related by their meaning. In the context of nature, the days themselves are formed and defined from “temporally coincident occurrences,” that is, events happening at the same time, events that reveal to the very blossom and tadpole the meaning of space and time. Things happen together: that is what makes the world make sense.

Vicki DeLoach / Flickr Creative Commons

There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things, writes George Borrow in a passage from his novel, Lavengro. There’s sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things…. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die? 

In my notes for this week of the year, I find myself in the middle of butterflies, days of color and nectar, drifting and soaring.  These days, I can see were the sweetest.

Lake Erie beach
Ohio Sea Grant / Flickr Creative Commons

Now if we let ourselves believe, it might seem that summer will never end. Even in the face of the changes taking place around us, we might to choose to remain here in the center of the year where the heat and humidity create a backwater of time.

This is the season in which anticipation cedes to acceptance. It is a time of self-deception. In the same way that the depths of winter seem to erase the possibility that the cold and gray can ever end, Deep Summer seems to promise only green leaves and flowers and warmth.

buckeye fruit
Puddin Tain / Flickr Creative Commons

I walk into the woods and pastures to touch Deep Summer, finding August’s white snakeroot with huge buds, stinging wood nettle with its Late Summer petals, wingstem ready to open, parsnips half to seed but still flowering enough to make part of the field yellow, while the other part is white with daisy fleabane. Wild onions are blooming. Virginia roses still bright pink.  Prickly buckeye fruits, an inch in diameter, are hanging from the trees.  Canadian thistles are gray, some thistle down loosed by the finches  and drifting with the afternoon wind.

Jeff-o-Matic / Flickr Creative Commons

The Milkweed Bug Mating Moon was new and dark, just a shadow high in the east before dawn. The the rain had finally ended, and the barometer was rising.

By the time the grackles woke up at 6:00, the chorus of cardinals and doves and sparrows was loud and raucous. Then a breeze passed through the trees, and the grackles became louder, their calls drowning out the other singers as the sun came up.

summer stream
Nicholas A. Tonelli / Flickr Creative Commons

The dream of my life,” writes poet Mary Oliver, “Is to lie down by a slow river/and stare at the light in the trees -/ to learn something by being nothing/ A little while but the rich lens of attention.”

Now these are the longest days of all, and if ever one might lie down by a slow river and stare at the light of the trees, these might be the days to do just that, and to learn something by being nothing.

soybean flower
Aerna's Mom / Flickr Creative Commons

So much is going on outside that it’s hard to know what else is going on. And to make matters worse, when one thing happens, something else is happening, too.

When great mullein blooms in the fields, then mock orange petals have all fallen and water willows are blossoming beside the streams.

When elderberry bushes come into full flower and cottonwood cotton floats in the wind, then the first chiggers bite in the woods and garden.

When the tall spikes of the yucca are in bloom, then Japanese beetles invade the soybeans.

Tom Christensen / Flickr Creative Commons

I keep a notebook of things I see around me, and often I see that the past feeds my present and gives me a sense of stability. Reliving certain times in the woods offers me a sense of permanence. I can read that This took place. This was. The experience will vanish with my ability to remember, to read or write, but still, I go back now , making that past the present this time.

Like June 10 of 2017, I wrote: “Throughout the village, the black mulberries are falling so quickly, and I see entire boughs collapsed into yards and streets so heavy with their sweet soft fruit.”