The Quiet Mysticism of Almanacs

July 11, 2021   •   By Jess McHugh

JUST AS THEY predict the weather, farmers’ almanac editors might have easily forecast my obsession with almanacs. Descended as I am not from farmers but from mill workers, maids, and insurance salesmen, it makes all the more sense: farmers’ almanacs have not primarily served farmers for quite some time. My grandfather, the insurance salesman, hung a framed reprint of the title page of Poor Richard’s Almanack alongside copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in his split-level home in Stoughton, Massachusetts.

I vaguely remember the Old Farmer’s Almanac around my house growing up — its predictions for snow in Massachusetts were rarely correct, but they were never entirely incorrect. (It is New England, so the odds were in their favor.) It wasn’t until a year ago, during an especially bad bout of insomnia, that I started reading the almanac’s gardening guide every night. I read about how to take care of delicate flowering trees. I studied how to plant various types of vegetables that I would never grow. I read about a man who had so many plants that he kept a spreadsheet for their care, spending several hours every day on watering alone. Since then, I’ve started collecting almanacs: poets’ almanacs, French almanacs; I’m still on the lookout for Davy Crockett’s almanack of wild sports of the West, and life in the backwoods.

Almanacs are an anomaly in the 2021 literary landscape, a choose-your-own adventure of print culture. So much of reading, especially online, is about seeking: looking for a fact, an image, a bit of information. With almanacs, the information finds us, drawing our attention to whatever it has deemed attention-worthy that year, whether worm moons or split pea soup recipes.

Attention has always been a commodity, though not in the same way it is now. Where paying attention was once something that afforded farmers a plentiful harvest, now our attention is increasingly something to be captured and capitalized upon by others. Our attention spans are often described as “scarce.” Some scholars have even started referring to advertising as “attention harvesting.” An almanac is, of course, a product (and it does sell other products in its advertisements), but it more frequently turns readers’ attention to things that cannot be bought or sold, to remarkable phenomena that can only be found in the natural world: bird migration, meteor showers, eclipses.

This focus on the expansiveness of nature brings me back to a childhood in which my attention was not so divided. I grew up in a 3,000-person town, and when my parents wanted some quiet, they would shoo me and my siblings outside. We spent hours in the woods, looking for salamanders or frogs, settling for slugs. I remember how beautiful everything seemed when lit by the sun through the trees, how I would collect rocks and leaves, only to find how ordinary they seemed when I brought them back to my bedroom. Reading the almanac brings me back to the woods, when I was awed that all of this — the birds, the water, the leaves and trees, the light, the moss, the insects — was there all the time, and all I needed to do was look.

Almanacs force the kind of surrender that comes naturally to a child in the woods. Paging through the almanac, readers must accept things as they come. The reward is a wonderfully freeing randomness: in this year’s almanac, I read about how to plant trees from clippings; learned that Duluth, Minnesota, is famous for “hawk watches”; and prepared for the “full flower moon.” Even the advertisements delight me: at what other one-stop shop could I purchase artisanal sausages, collectors’ nickels from 1935, and a product called “chicken soup for the soil”? I float along the pages, learning things I’ll likely never use — or things that are so obvious as to be useless. This year’s Old Farmer’s Almanac spent an entire section breaking down the pros and cons of owning different species of pets (in case you didn’t know, dogs are friendly but chew shoes sometimes, and cats are cute but independent). That’s part of the charm, too: the almanac doesn’t take itself too seriously. As its five-page article on choosing a pet says: “[D]on’t intellectualize dog love.”

Almanacs strike this balance between the practical and the poetic. That tightrope act is even starker in older editions. Looking through 18th-century almanacs, there might be a recipe for refining sugar on one page, a poem on the next, a list of court dates after that, and a smattering of dry jokes and witticisms sprinkled throughout. The Old Farmer’s Almanac tagline has long been “useful, with a pleasant degree of humor.”

Their “useful” quality — something that is diametrically opposed to how I use them now — was foregrounded in early editions. They were first intended to provide structure for farmers, to help them plan their planting, growing, and harvesting seasons. These small, handheld books carried sunset and sunrise times, tide tables, even predictions for days best suited for sowing certain seeds or mating certain animals.

“The secret of The Old Farmer’s Almanac: pay attention,” Tim Clark, a former editor at the Almanac, once told me. “Pay attention to the sky, and the winds, and the tides, and the number of acorns on the ground in the fall, and what the animals are doing, and which way the birds are flying. Pay attention. And that’s what a farmer in 1792 — or 1292 — had to do to survive.”

What some consider the first almanac — a calendar of feast and holy days — dates back to 1292–1225 BC (the era of Rameses II). The first use in English came from Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus in 1267, referring to astronomical tables. Historians have suggested, although never definitively proved, that Christopher Columbus may have taken a 1475 almanac with him to navigate to the New World. Since that mishap, almanacs have been inextricably linked with American history.

When the first print shop was established in Massachusetts less than two decades after the arrival of the pilgrims, the second book printed was an almanac. By the time Benjamin Franklin published his Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732, almanacs were hugely popular in the United States — and he joined some six competitors in Philadelphia alone. For at least the first 50 years in US history, a regional almanac was one of the only books that many Americans would have possessed (some 40 percent of rural New England households did not own a single book during this period, not even a Bible). As such, it took on an outsize importance in a culture where books were rare commodities, earning a place of prominence in the household. The Old Farmer’s Almanac still drills a hole in the top left corner of the almanac, as it is destined not for the bookshelf but rather for a hook in the kitchen or doorway, there for all who need to consult it.

In that way, the almanac was a tool as much as it was a book. Americans in particular seem attached to things that are practical: inventions (even literature) that improve us, make life easier or more productive. The almanac both embodies and upends that devotion. It might give readers some practical information, but it is hardly a refuge from ambiguity. If anything, it nuances even its most practical pages: the almanac’s farmer’s calendar is so complex that it requires a three-page key to decipher it.

Now that we no longer need them to make it through the winter, almanacs have become both escapism and a kind of meditation. They invite us to take things as they come, to delight in the sediment of everyday life. They are a call to observe the natural world, both the grand and the humble: eclipses and harvest moons, but also changing leaves and hatching insects. Watching things grow — even reading about watching things grow — connects almanac readers to a tradition that exists outside a highly technologized, often isolated, modern world. With their reminders to count acorns and to avoid killing spiders, almanacs have this wisdom — of small things.

Almanacs give an impression of permanence, a reminder that a childlike wonder in the woods can be omnipresent. It’s not just because they have a long continuance with the past but because they march on: after all, they are intended to predict the future year’s weather. Almanacs are cyclical, a reminder that things happen in their time and place, and we can prepare and make plans, but frost might come anyway. Or a coyote might eat our chickens. But there’s next year. And regardless, we can still count the acorns and avoid killing the spiders.


Jess McHugh is an author and journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME, and The Paris Review Daily, and other venues. Her book, Americanon, explores U.S. identity through the lens of 13 best-selling books.