An almanac provides meditations inspired by encounters with the natural world.
“When I go too far out, I need to gather my landmarks of home around me,” writes radio broadcaster and veteran almanac author Felker (Poor Will’s Almanac for 2018, 2017, etc.) in his short, aphoristic new work of reflections on nature. “Distant locations only make sense against my local gauge.” The more he understands where he is, he tells his readers, the more he understands himself. Consequently, he lavishes extraordinary care and attention on his small plot of field and woodland in Yellow Springs in southwestern Ohio, often characterizing the locus of home as the “prime meridian” in even the most far-ranging voyages. In the long tradition of nature diaries, he anchors dozens of short pieces on explorations of the seasons of the year, the moods of the weather, and, most of all, the characters and behaviors of all the animals he spots, particularly birds. Several of the architects of this kind of writing, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to John Burroughs, are quoted or paraphrased with obvious affection, and Felker’s animal portraits are warmly enhanced by what he freely admits is a liberal amount of anthropomorphizing. His birds and woodland creatures are often as metaphorical as they are material. He’s a careful and meticulous observer who nevertheless seldom falls into the trap reserved for scrupulous spectators: being tedious. He’s saved from this because he commands a light-footed prose style and he keeps his vignettes very brief.
Felker has been crafting these almanac-style entries for many years, and his experience shows not only in the smoothness and economy of his storytelling, but also in the winning combination of humility and poetic insights he’s clearly mastered. He’s delightful company on the page, in everything from his subtle, sensory-heavy evocations of the seasons (winter being a specialty) to his accounts of the stars and his lush descriptions of the natural world’s various inhabitants, captured even in a quick list of the region’s bird life: “The sparrows, like starlings, staying tight to the motions of the flock; the acrobatic chickadees swooping in and out, remaining only seconds to grasp their sunflower seed and fly off; the wary, fluttering titmice; the blue jays, harsh and bullying; the hopping, syncopated nuthatches exploring upside down.” These passages are often layered with musings about the author’s moods—the immediate and sometimes-odd ways his feelings intersect with the flora and fauna he stumbles on (one of the book’s closing scenes, involving a group of pantry-raiding mice, is an especially touching example). The tone throughout remains highly personal, almost confessional, which often adds to the charm of the work. The author’s knowledge of the plants and animals in his realm is encyclopedic but never comes across as pedantic, and the resulting almanac is a tightly focused and wonderfully executed example of small-bore nature writing.
A brief, intense, and entirely enjoyable tour of nature.