Farmer’s Almanac, not your grandfather’s ‘zine


    I have here a copy of the 211th edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Western Edition, the oldest continuously published periodical in the land. Although there were never any farmers in my family that I know of, I sort of remember my grandfather, a retired railroad engineer, referring to his copy for all sorts of odd bits of information.

    Precious few changes have been made over the years, and none in the name of fashion. The cover looks like it came out of the attic of an old Iowa farmhouse, promising weather forecasts, planting tables and zodiac secrets in its black and white newsprint pages. Actually, the first 30 pages are in color now and contain ads for items not even dreamed of during the almanac’s first century: a hearing aid that touts “bionic hearing” for $9.95; a mattress called Space “recognized by NASA”; a pheromone additive for your favorite perfume or aftershave to “increase romance in your life”; a miracle hormone that “makes plants zoom!” and a supplement to lower cholesterol. “Snake oil,” Grandpa would say, never having heard of cholesterol or pheromones, or NASA or of bionic anything.

    Modern day advertising aside, the voice is from another time, a simpler, gentler time. The typeface, the biblical references, the oldtime folksy pictures and short verse.

    The heart, the core, is the Farmer’s Calendar, two pages for each month with astrological charts for moon, tides, planets (the Western edition is calculated for San Francisco with a complicated formula for adjusting the numbers to other west coast locations).

    A paragraph on predicting earthquakes notes that the most likely five-day period is when the Moon rides high in the Northern Hemisphere and when it runs low, the Southern Hemisphere is most likely to get a jolt. Have they talked to Caltech about this? Is Lucy Jones on call when the moon rides high?

    The Almanac weather forecasts are derived from a secret formula devised by the founder in 1792, enhanced by the most modern scientific calculations based on solar activity and current meteorological data. The caveat: “However, neither we nor anyone else has as yet gained sufficient insight into the mysteries of the universe to predict the weather with anything resembling total accuracy.” Well. I’d say that leaves Fritz and Dallas off the hook for errant prognostications.

    Features in this issue include “The Art of Reading Tea Leaves,” “The Far-out Idea that Fed a Nation” (a history of the TV dinner) and “Uncanny Facts About Goats.” Among other fascinating farm facts, I learned the Egyptians worshipped goats, the Greeks sacrificed them (from whence we get “scapegoat”) and Christians feared they were Satan’s offspring “because of their cloven hooves and lecherous ways when in heat.”

    And speaking of heat, the Husbandry page has a handy Gestation and Mating Table for sheep, horses, cows, swine, goats, rabbits, dogs and cats. And I thought cats had this all sorted out for themselves. I now know that the incubation period for canaries is 14 to 15 days while swans require 42.

    The maximum life span of a camel is 35 years, a goldfish could live to be 41 (if he doesn’t get flushed down the toilet) and a quahog (whatever that is) could make it to 150, in captivity. A house mouse may reach 6 years while a housefly is lucky to be around for 17 days.

    A sow usually ovulates 30 to 36 hours after the start of estrus (that’s when her behavior gets really tacky). I also learned that marine mammals carry their young proportionately longer than land animals. I suppose this has something to do with buoyancy versus gravity, but who knows. Anyway, if you’re harboring a hippo, you should expect her to deliver her baby in 225 to 250 days. However, your otter will remain expectant for as long as 300 days.

    “Best Fishing Days, 2003” reminds me of why I don’t fish. According to the lore, the best times to fish are: One hour before and one hour after high tides and low tides. (Why this matters in Montana, I’m not sure.) Just after sunup and before sundown (if mosquitos and no-see-ums aren’t an issue); when the breeze is from the westerly quarter rather than from the north or east (if it’s blowing a gale, all bets are off); when the barometer is steady or on the rise (also the best time for a sinus headache); and starting the day the moon is new through the day it is full. In the year 2003, thou shalt fish from Feb. 1-16, March 2-18, etc. but only if the barometer is steady or on the rise. Come on, guys. That just lacks the spontaneity I associate with locking up the shop and hanging out the “Gone Fishing” sign.

    Of course, all this lore comes from the days before cell phones, Palm Pilots and “You’ve Got Mail” interrupting the natural flow of things.

    And for those of us who aren’t slaves to these modern inconveniences, we can jot down the dates of May 15-16 and Nov. 8 to see the penumbral eclipses of the moon. And the dates and times of the principal meteor showers and all that good stuff that’s been going on for hundreds of years before our entertainment was provided by media conglomerates (I wonder what’s the gestation for a media giant), and will still be providing free shows (sans copyright) after the megamedia guys implode.

    And besides, it’s comforting to read a magazine that’s had only 13 editors in two centuries. Tina Brown, eat your heart out.