By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Here are three words you might expect to cause instant seizure with an Internet search engine: Old. Farmer's. Almanac.
And yet, those canny New England Yankees who publish the annual Old Farmer's Almanac have just put out No. 218 in seeming blithe indifference to the seismic shifts that have rocked traditional print media in the digital age.
The almanac ($5.99 at http://www.almanac.com), as it happens, predicts earthquakes and a lot of other natural phenomena, and describes how we should live with them, advising on such things as the moment to start a diet and the best day to slaughter a pig (for you, presumably, not the hog). It all has to do with the alignment of the firmament, or something like that.
Its philosophy is a bit weird and wacky, but it reaches deep into the agrarian roots and folkloric traditions of America, and it still resonates with more than 3 million readers.
An almanac is an astronomic and astrological calendar of the heavens. That was the core of the first almanac, published by Robert B. Thomas in 1792, and remains the heart of the current one. The look is still old -- cheap paper, black ink and lots of charts and symbols -- though I wish the editors would go back to styling the letter "s" as "f." Mr. Thomas admonished that May "is a very bufy month with farmers and gardners [sic]. Uncover your afparagus bed. Turn your young cattle into the wood lands, fo as to fave your paftures." Mr. Thomas was one fmart cookie.
And what of the pastures of our weather? Long-range weather prediction is the stock in trade of almanacs, and though the Old Farmer's Almanac claims with a straight face 80 percent accuracy, and its rival, the Farmers' Almanac, 80 to 85 percent, their forecasts for the coastal mid-Atlantic region this winter are quite different. The Old Farmer's Almanac, published in Dublin, N.H., predicts a cold and snowy season; the Farmers' Almanac, based in Lewiston, Maine, forecasts one of normal temperatures and precipitation.
Janice Stillman, editor of the Old Farmer's Almanac, said that "we use satellite data, state-of-the-art information. It's just the interpretation of that information and the inclusion of activity of the sun into our forecast that distinguishes us from just about everybody else." Did we mention the ace in the hole? "We have a secret formula," she said, "the calculations of which even I don't know."
The Farmers' Almanac ($5.99 at http://store.farmersalmanac.com), which uses its own top-secret formula, mentions that in 2007 its winter forecast was even more accurate than Punxsutawney Phil's, contradicting the Pennsylvania groundhog in forecasting six more weeks of winter.
I agreed to meet Stillman, wondering if she would arrive looking like Betsy Ross, but her hair was close-cropped and she wore a chartreuse designer leather jacket. She gave me copies of the 2010 almanac, but the one I was salivating for was the 2009 edition, so I could check its accuracy.
I have figured out that the key to weather forecasting in general and the almanacs in particular is to hedge your bets. The Old Farmer's Almanac lumps the country into 16 regions. Washington is part of the Atlantic corridor stretching from Richmond to Boston, which in itself seems a pretty good hedge, capturing so much latitude.
A year ago, the almanac predicted for our region snow in early and mid-December, early January, early and late February, and early March. It may have snowed somewhere in that corridor during those periods, but Reagan National Airport got a smidgen less than two inches of snow on Jan. 27 and 5.5 inches at the beginning of March. That was it for the winter.
Our really wet spring also caught the old farmer dozing. He had predicted a normal or drier season.
"Anybody can put out a forecast, but the issue is the track record of verification," said Antonio Busalacchi, a professor in the University of Maryland's department of atmospheric and oceanic science.
The forecasts and long-range outlooks of the National Weather Service, for example, have improved in recent years through new skills and technology. "They are certainly not ironclad, but they do have a documented track record," he said. One of the basics of science is that you give your experimental data to others, Busalacchi said, so they can reproduce the results. "That's not the case," he said, when you have "a secret formula."
Perhaps I'm missing the point. "It's about the belief that nature has its ways," Stillman said. "If you think it's going to rain because the cows lie down."
What's important about the almanac, apart from its place in American culture, is that it continues to transport us back to a time when we were much closer to the cycles of nature; our ability to feed ourselves depended on that. That's also the enduring value of gardening, of being in sync with the seasonal cycles. The closer we look, the more we see, for example, next April's viburnum flowers now in nascent bud or the young raspberry canes, which will bear the fruit of June, among the spent ones.
I am not guided by folklore, being more willing to consider soil moisture and temperature before sowing beans, for example, than the phase of the moon. But for those who do embrace that, more power to them. Plants have their magic; that's what makes them so alluring.
"I know our gardener years ago was pretty fanatical" about planting by the moon, said Dean Norton, horticultural director of Mount Vernon. "I think more of our people do it these days more in a joking fashion, a horticultural celebration." George Washington, for his part, relied on one of the most famous horticultural guides of his day, Philip Miller's "The Gardeners Dictionary."
Robert Thomas had his own moments of wisdom and insight. October is the month when the harvest is safely gathered, cider is made and manure dug into the soil: "No time is to be loft this month."