Bill Felker, the 21st Century Emerson
Bill Felker, who has been called both the present-day Emerson and Thoreau, has been chronicling nature in his columns, articles, almanacs, and NPR radio show since 1984. His “Poor Will’s Almanack” has appeared as an annual publication since 2003. Since 2006, Felker has had a “Poor Will's Almanak” podcast. The radio version airs on NPR station WYSO.
“Poor Will's Almanack” 2021, features descriptions of the 4 seasons with an emphasis on the floral and faunal cycles. The book features sections on the major planets, stars, shooting stars and adds an extra dimension to the seasonal essays. The monthly weather forecasts emphasize the predictable passage of high–pressure systems across the United States and include consideration of lunar influence on these fronts.
In addition, the Seasonal Affective Disorder Index, which measures the effects of cloud cover, weather, the day’s length, and the phase of the moon on S.A.D., offers a numerical context for following the influence of these factors on human emotions.
Bill’s books, articles, and podcasts are filled with practical information as well as philosophical insights and whimsical stories. Whether you’re a farmer or gardener, a nature enthusiast, or simply want to take a mindful journey through the seasons, “Poor Will's Almanak” offers something for everyone.
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing background?
I wrote comic books in grade school, stick-man type stories about the Old West. I gave that up in high school – which happened to be a Catholic seminary. I began journaling and writing poems in my junior year there, and then in my senior year, I wrote a fantasy novel, Victory, about a Viking king who went around burning churches. I could tell, at that point, that I was not cut out for the priesthood.
My first wife used to love to talk about my journals of that period, in which I was struggling to be holy, and the novel which spared no lurid details of death and destruction of Church-related things. Unfortunately, I burned Victory years ago in a fit of embarrassment about how bad it was. My wife thought that I should have published the pious journal and the angry Viking story in a side-by-side format, but I never got around to doing that.
In college, I majored in classics, then philosophy, then Spanish, then Latin American area studies. When I quit school in my sophomore year, the college chaplain found me a job teaching English in a mission school in Puerto Rico. I learned some Spanish there, fell in love with the tropics, and wrote my second bad novel, Thrush, that one about my first love. I still haven’t burned that one yet.
I returned from Puerto Rico to attend the University of Minnesota, wrote a lot of term papers, wrote a very good dissertation on the Guatemalan novelist of the land, Flavio Herrera (probably my best writing), continued my journaling and poetry writing, and wrote two more bad novels: The Revolt of William Brown, the story of an American trinket salesman in Puerto Rico who leaves his wife for a barely-legal waif and escapes with her to the United States; Riomaria, the tale of a failed Spanish professor who goes in search of the great Latin American novel in order to reset his career, but ends up in Rio Maria, a tiny village in the Panamanian jungle which is dominated by a drug ring.
The dissertation and the unpublished novels, while not related obviously to my later career in almanacking, often explored the relationship of the characters to their environment. In fact, the almanac genre was the only way I could write about humans and nature in a context I could actually publish.
How did your first almanac come about?
The segue to writing almanacs from my academic studies, journal writing and attempts at fiction took place in two stages. First of all, when I was going crazy working and going to graduate school, my wife gave me a barometer, and this fortuitous gift introduced me to the steady breathing of Earth.
I began obsessively tracking barometric highs and lows, a process that allowed me to rediscover pre-20th century weather prediction methods. 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. The pulse of the world was steadier than I had ever imagined. Taking into consideration the consistency of certain patterns in the past, I could make fairly successful forecasts about the likelihood of the repetition of such occurrences in the future.
The next step in my conversion took place after I stopped smoking in the 1980s and began to hike in the woods every day. As I walked and walked to dilute my withdrawal from nicotine, I took notes about what I saw around me in nature: flowers blooming, trees leafing, birds calling, insects crawling. Addiction to moving and taking notes about what was happening in the natural world replaced the other addiction, and for the past 40 years, I have kept records of the progress of the seasons in my home, Yellow Springs, Ohio, a small town just south of the 40th Parallel in the Ohio
As a way of compiling and sorting the hundreds of thousands of words I had written in my observations, I put together a daybook. This daybook has one chapter for each day of the year, and each chapter contains a daily weather summary and my notes for that day between 1984 and 2020. Its combination of 17th century meteorology and parochial or backyard history has provided the basis for the nature columns that I currently write for about a dozen newspapers and magazines. It has been a teacher that has shown me how clusters of observations create seasons. It has been a well of local natural history that is not available in any other place.
At any rate, in the middle of my conversion from an academic to a creator of almanacs, I approached the editor of the local weekly newspaper. “I’ve got this idea for an almanac,” I said, laying out my plan. “Ok,” he said, “but if you do one almanac, you need to do one every week.” That was in February of 1984, and here I am. I can’t stop.
Tell us a little about Poor Will’s Almanack?
Poor Will is all about paying attention to nature and living authentically with the world.
Unlike other almanacks, it has no advertising, and its focus is on what happens when in the sky and on the ground. In addition to essential information about the moon, sun, stars and planets, the 2021 version of Poor Will features short essays on the 48 seasons of the year – descriptions of what happens in nature and when it happens. These essays allow the reader to situate him/herself in the real time of the seasons of the year. The Almanack also contains a list of blooming dates for wildflowers and trees to assist the reader in “horoscoping” (or time-watching).
In addition, Poor Will’s Almanack contains a Seasonal Affective Disorder Index. This S.A.D. Index is a way of measuring the natural phenomena which are assumed to be related to S.A.D.: the day's length, the percentage of probable sunlight, the weather and the moon. In order to create the Index, each of those factors was given a value from zero to 25, and then the three values were combined onto a scale of one to 100. Interpretation is simple: the higher the number, the greater the stress.
Poor Will’s Almanack also features “Almanack Literature.” What’s that? Toward the end of the 1980s, I began to ask for reader contributions, and Almanack Literature was born. People wrote all kinds of things for my column: memory stories, outhouse tales, narratives about birthday parties, about unusual occurrences, about falling in love, and about their favorite animals. The stories keep on coming.
How did the title come about?
When I began almanacking in 1984, I wanted to choose a name that was different from the “farmer” associations of the current best-selling almanac. The logical choice seemed to be to reach back to America’s first and most famous almanac, Poor Richard’s Almanack, prepared throughout the latter part of the 18th century by Benjamin Franklin. Ben had many imitators back then, among them, a certain Poor Will. Although it has been almost 200 years since Will tried to follow in Franklin’s footsteps, I thought it was not inappropriate for William (Bill) Felker to revive the name and the tradition, while making a clean break with the kinds of almanacks currently sold in this country today.
Is there something that sets your almanac apart from all the others out there?
Poor Will’s weather information includes dates for every major cold front or high-pressure system of the year. No one else comes close to providing this information. As an adjunct, I also offer The Weather Book of Poor Will’s Almanack, the only book that describes how to estimate weather conditions based on almanac principles. Poor Will’s weather projections combine historical data about the arrival of cold waves and the influence of the moon on those events. The Weather Book tells how this works.
Poor Will’s Almanack is the only almanac that names the moons each year according to what actually happens in nature. For example, the March moon is called the Robin Mating Chorus Moon, which marks one of the major pivot times of spring.
Each Poor Will’s Almanack contains an anthology of farm and family stories written by the Almanack’s readers. For example, Ann Witte’s story, “The Midwife,” tells about how her border collie helped with the birthing of a lamb.
Poor Will’s Almanack includes the Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) Index which allows the reader to make daily estimates of the forces that are thought to contribute to this affliction.
Poor Will’s Almanack contains a section called “Peak Activity Time for Creatures” that gives the approximate time of day that fish will bite, wild game will be more active, and dieters will have more trouble dieting.
Poor Will’s Almanack provides a narrative and reference for events in the natural year. No other book does that.
You also have a radio show and podcast, tell us a bit about that.
My weekly radio show, Poor Will’s Almanack, began on WYSO, a National Public Radio station based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 2006. It has been running ever since. Poor Will is a three-minute segment in which I describe and reflect on the seasons. Based on my daybooks and my weekly reflections in my almanac column in The Yellow Springs News, these interludes offer the audience a psychological safe zone and brief respite away from the news and social events of the day. Poor Will is available on podcast through WYSO and Spotify. I have also published two collections of my essays, Home is the Prime Meridian: Almanac Essays in Search of Time and Place and Spirit, and Deep Time Is in the Garden: More Almanac Essays in Search of Time and Place and Spirit, that anthologize many of radio readings. For the hard-core Poor Will reader, just about everything I’ve written about nature is available in the 12-volume Daybook for the Year in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which I continue to expand and revise and republish frequently on Amazon.
Who do you see as your prime audience?
Poor Will appeals to a broad cross-section of the population. My farm almanacks offer weather, simple astronomy, nature and farm notes, combined with a short word puzzle and a reader story. This is light, informative entertainment.
The column I write for Countryside and Small Stock Journal focuses on farm and garden information, weather, astronomy and the puzzle, but it does not include a reader story; these people want information.
My urban/suburban column for the Dayton Daily News, The Springfield-Sun and the Yellow Springs News (all southwestern Ohio papers) replace the puzzle and reader story with my reflections that are similar to those of the radio almanac.
In short, my audience is interested in information about connecting with nature, and feeling in control in a crazy techno world.
What current projects are you working on?
I work daily on preparing my newspaper columns and radio segments. I make daily entries in my Daybook, which I post on my website. And I’m getting ready to start the 2022 Poor Will’s Almanack.
In addition, I am working on a memoir about my late wife, Jeanie, Gardening with Jeanie: Lessons from a Kindergarten Teacher. I have also begun putting together a book on shadow boxing, which chronicles my journey through the martial arts. Once in a while, I resurrect one of my novels and ruminate about what I might do with it. Who knows what might happen in Riomaria!
Publications that currently use Poor Will’s Almanack weekly or monthly
Countryside and Small Stock Journal: National circulation every two months
The Yellow Springs News: Weekly, Yellow Springs, Ohio (southwestern Ohio)
The Daily Standard: Daily newspaper, Celina, Ohio (western Ohio)
The Daily Globe: Daily newspaper, Shelby, Ohio
Farmland News: Weekly newspaper for northwestern Ohio and southern Michigan
Firelands Farmer: Weekly newspaper, central Ohio
Farmworld: Weekly newspaper for farmers throughout the Midwest, Lower Midwest and Border States
The Vermont Country Sampler: Monthly in Vermont
The Dayton Daily News: Daily in Dayton, Ohio
The Springfield News Sun: Daily in Springfield, Ohio (southwest)
The Van Buren County Register: Weekly, Keosauqua, Iowa
The Willard Times Junction: Weekly newspaper, central Ohio
For further information on Bill Felker please visit https://www.poorwillsalmanack.com/