Reviewed in this essay: Robert Thomas, 2012 Old Farmer’s Almanac, Thomas Allen, 2011.
Listen to the author read this piece: [audio: issue3/vanmeermass.mp3]
Every fall in supermarkets across North America The Old Farmer’s Almanac appears at checkout stands, sitting incongruously amid tabloids and recipe magazines. The Almanac’s antiquated woodcut cover is the first indication that this cheaply bound volume is in fact a rich little historical artifact. Its contents can draw us back into what philosopher and environmental historian Carolyn Merchant called the “animate cosmos of the colonial farmer.”
America’s oldest continually published periodical, The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s basic format remains largely the same as when it was first published in Boston in 1783. Its pages are crammed with small-type charts containing weather predictions, liturgical calendars, planting tables, folk remedies and other useful miscellany. For its original rural audience it served at once as an everyday compendium of useful information and a kind of orrery explaining the mysteriously interlaced rhythms and cycles of the natural and spiritual world. American historian Marion Barber Stowell holds that, in colonial New England, an almanac, of which there were dozens, and a Bible were often the only two printed publications in the home.
The 2012 Old Farmer’s Almanac is, of course, much like every other year’s. At its core are twelve two-page spreads, one for every month. The left side contains solar, lunar, tidal and astrological tables and the right side contains the dates of religious feasts and fasts, historical anniversaries, proverbs, and celestial events accompanied by a weather-predicting rhyme and a folksy farmer anecdote.
These are followed by regional weather forecasts that, it is claimed, are calculated using “a secret formula devised by the founder of this Almanac, Robert B. Thomas in 1792.” The Almanac nevertheless employs the help of Berkeley Astronomy professor Bethany E. Cobb in the application of this formula. In its own recap of 2011’s forecasts, the Almanac claims to have been largely correct. The nature of the Almanac’s predictions almost guarantees their accuracy. It is easy enough to predict the weather if you are wagering that sometime between January 20th and 24th there will be a snowstorm somewhere between Thunder Bay and Toronto. But we can’t fault the Almanac entirely for trying to expand its appeal with speculative forecasts about widespread regions. Once a highly localized New England publication, it now reaches as many people internationally as lived in the United States when it began.
Rather, the Almanac’s publishers, who must by now know that their weather forecasts are of little use to any farmer, understand that its continued appeal rests on its age and its association with an idealized pre-Industrial New England. With severely diminished influence over the lives and opinions of its readers, the Almanac survives as a reminder of many North Americans’ nostalgia for an imagined time when tilling the land was a kind of ritual of faith.
Its appeal is some combination of its hayseed wisdom and its evocation of the corporeal connections to the earth and stars that city folks associate with farm folks; it may serve as a salve to the impersonal indignities of a farm life now largely dominated by federal subsidies, itinerant labour, and market speculation. The Almanac is full of little cipher keys that draw in those keen to establish a stronger connection between the physical and spiritual world: guides to astronomical gardens, and a ‘man of signs’ chart explaining the influence of celestial bodies on our own body parts; contemporary ads for dowsing rods, crystal healers, miracle cures and bible codes. The Almanac offers readmission into a world where life’s abstractions supposedly enriched daily existence, rather than rendering it incomprehensible.
While these additions all may seem like corruptions of agricultural roots and silly attempts to re-obscure what science and progress have made clear, the Almanac’s jumbled contents are in a sense just one refraction of a larger, and sometimes just as confused, cultural process. Urban farming, folk revivalism, heritage work-wear, and a general obsession with the provenance of food are all signs of how the environmental and economic crises of the past decade have reawakened a popular desire for meaning beyond the end-products and spectacles of contemporary consumer culture. These trends reflect a middle-class longing for a more tangible place in the chains of production that sustain daily life, a desire not so different from the nostalgic longing that has kept the Almanac in publication for so many years. Whether this desire, as is often the case, simply manifests itself as the consumption of a new commodity or spurs a more complex understanding of the present economy and environment, it borrows from the past an image of a manageable world. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has always pitched itself to readers who are hungry for an earthbound explanation of our place within a unified natural and symbolic order, a craving familiar to the many for whom a sense of order and agency are lacking in the world today.