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Poor Will's Almanack: March 19 - 25, 2019

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.

In his On Trails, Robert Moore explains that topogeny “is the summoning, in the mind’s eye, of a mental landscape….” Like the technique of singing the names of landmarks for navigation, used by the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia and described by Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines, the naming of flora and fauna, in context, becomes a sequence of markers with which one can plot time and place. 

In the coldest springs, it often seem I am lost in a monotony of rain and gray, but then if I walk about and look closely, I might see May apples pushing up in the woods, bluebells, twinleaf, bloodroot, small-flowered bittercress and hepatica budding,  willows, mock orange, and buckeyes leafing, forsythia blooming in hedgerows, maybe see a goldfinch turned all summer gold. If I listen on the warmest nights, I might hear the shrill call of the American toad 

If I keep walking and if I collect signs for just a few days, I will have a topogeny, a list of events which will be the map that tells me exactly where I am and will show me the way to summer.

This is Bill Felker with Poor Will’s Almanack. I’ll be back again next week with notes for the final week of Early Spring  and the final week of the Cabbage White Butterfly Moon. Go out and start collecting  the signs of spring. Make your own topogeny. Soon you’ll have a map that will take you all the way to summer.

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Bill Felker has been writing nature columns and almanacs for regional and national publications since 1984. His Poor Will’s Almanack has appeared as an annual publication since 2003. His organization of weather patterns and phenology (what happens when in nature) offers a unique structure for understanding the repeating rhythms of the year.