Almanacs, Daily Devotion, and “an Orchard, for a Dome”

(Subscribers, a reminder that I post here sporadically–my energies have been going to my twice-weekly newsletter for some time . The link to that is on the right. Thank you for reading, and I always love to hear from readers!)

This month, a local organization that supports arts endeavors threw some shade on Read an Almanac Month, bypassing any recommendations and saying maybe an almanac isn’t such a great beach read!

Who decided that July was Read an Almanac month? No clue, but lots of sites, like BookRiot, list this designation.

Me, I’m a big fan of the farmer’s almanacs. There are more than one, but The Old Farmer’s Almanac was first published during George Washington’s presidency, in 1793. Back then, there was no “Old” in the title.

I relish reading these unique collections. Yes, I might skim past meteorological minutiae and musings about crop timing, but I like the mix of articles, recipes, lore, advice, and the like. The pieces often touch on both nature and history, two favorite topics!

There are other types of almanacs, too, and some of these, like The World Almanac Book of Why: Explanations for Absolutely Everything (for kids), are simply compendiums of fun and interesting factoids. And, while almanacs are often described as annual publications, like the farmers’ editions, they don’t have to be!

As much as I appreciate a good, fact-filled compendium, I bristled at the claim that an almanac would not be of much interest to readers for a different reason. I bristled because I’ve called my own upcoming book an almanac of sorts, although if I’m in a different mood I call it a devotional.

Do those two words—almanac and devotional—seem at odds? Let me explain. First, the almanac part:

There’s an admirable tradition of writers faithfully recording something about the natural world for each day of the year and gathering it all up in a volume often treasured by readers. I was pleased to see that Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year (1979), a gathering of 365 of his best The New York Times mini natural history essays, is at Barnes & Noble, now re-released as “The Timeless Naturalist Classic.” It’s described as “…almost like an almanac following the seasons of the Native American lunar calendar…” Okay, I’ll excuse the “almost.” To me, it is, no doubt, an almanac.

A Goodreads review likens Edwin Way Teale’s Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist’s Year (1953) to Aldo Leopold’s famed A Sand County Almanac (1949). Each of these books is a delight; each ran through the year in a linear way, sharing observations of nature through the seasons, as well as some deeper thoughts. In Leopold’s case, he went beyond recording his encounters to discussion of creating a land ethic—an important idea that grabbed readers’ attention and has made him a household name in environmental circles. You can read more here.

Teale and Borland, both of whom wrote about their Connecticut surroundings, guided their readers through the natural year in book form more than once. Most Teale fans I know particularly revere his A Walk Through the Year (1978), with most daily entries reflecting the old farm he and his wife lived on in Hampton, Connecticut (now the Connecticut Audubon sanctuary Trail Wood). I was delighted to see that Julianna Schroeder at The Opulent Opossum blog gives tribute to all these thoughtful and observant naturalists in several entries titled, “Journeys Around the Sun.” Here’s the one on Leopold.

There are other terms that fit this kind of work, like “chronicle” or “book of days” or “nature journal” or “phenology” (that last one sounds so dry, but opens up a fascinating world. See here). But, for me, “almanac” has stuck. I’m pleased to see that, with a search of “nature almanac” at Amazon, many appealing and modern titles come up. (Some older books by the authors I cite here, and many others like them, have gone out of print. I relish finding them in used book stores!)

When I wrote my book proposal for The Morning Light, the Lily White: Daily Dips into Nature and Spirit (coming by fall, I hope, from Shanti Arts!), I suppose my idea most closely followed the Borland tradition, in that quite a few of the pieces were published elsewhere first. I had to update them, adjust them for book format, and create new pieces (at least a third of them) for a final volume. I don’t have a Times column like Borland did, but I have a treasured group of faithful newsletter readers who have written to share appreciation, their own experiences, topic ideas, and the occasional potential correction. (I am, after all, a generalist and fall far more onto the curiosity and appreciation side of things, as opposed to the “expert” side of things!). And what a delight it is to be outside, walking, wondering and taking notes, forming ideas for the next newsletter. The latest: Tom and Gavin found a “barnacle” of sorts in a freshwater stream, filled with tiny worms. Was this a larval case for some famliar creature? I want to go see the stream myself, and then to do some research.

But, in this upcoming book, my second nature writing collection, I wanted to go beyond an almanac, beyond a focus on interesting outdoor finds and facts, and add “spirit” to my title. So, here’s the part about calling the book a devotional:

During my growing up years, my mom read a slim, daily devotional. She got a new edition in the mail each month. It set the tone for her day. Late in life, she switched to another magazine in the same vein, but this time with a Catholic spin (she had converted), for quite a few years. The little volume was handsomely decorated with vintage religious art.

I’ve had a tone set for my days by reading Teale, Borland, and sometimes Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day by Day (that last one, 2016, is complete with engaging photos, many by the author!). I guess that’s part of my “church,” in a way. I learn new things, I get to wonder at the world, and later, when I get outside, I remember what I’ve read. The other part of my “church” is being out in a natural setting, preferably alone, curious, quiet, and alert, and noticing other creatures (both flora and fauna). Oh, and I want to “proselytize,” in a way, in that I want to share this expansive joy, wisdom, and unending fascination that I find in nature with others!

So far, I haven’t mastered any regular spiritual practice in a community, although I want to at times. The quote in today’s title is from Emily Dickinson’s poem, and captures what resonates most for me:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

In my book proposal, I quoted poet Mary Oliver, who said “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I wrote that this turn of phrase embodies a credo for many who are drawn to the natural world and a feel a reverence for their experiences there. So, yes, my own brand of almanac might also be considered a devotional in that it attends to the world.

We come back from our time in nature feeling curious, filled, and inspired; we have enlivening and even ecstatic experiences as we interact with the world outside. All of us, whatever our traditions and history, can find fascination in the living world and acknowledge our longing for deep connection, a longing that extends beyond our own kind to the myriad elements of our swirling sphere, to the soil and the sky, to a nearly unfathomable range of plants and animals.

What a deep blessing it has been to be able to record experiences like these, that touch both mind and soul, and set them in a book.

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