Of course, these forecasts aren’t exactly reliable: meteorologists can hardly predict the weather with any real accuracy beyond next week, let alone next June. But getting angry at the almanac can be a bit like protesting against the fortune teller’s tent at the county fair. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a sweet kind of fake news. To leaf through its 2023 edition is to be nostalgic for the days when pop culture’s bunk was limited to astrology, psychics and ancient folk remedies. (Hay fever? Find the nearest mule and kiss her nostrils.) Cute, the post is printed with a hole in the corner, so you can easily hang it in your woodshed, outhouse, or anywhere you like keep your fantasies of mud- muddy and astronomical agrarian life.
My 10 year old son reminded me of the lure of the Almanac
The Old Farmer’s Almanac is now strangely disconnected from its purpose. He wants to evoke our affection for nature without showing much interest in human nature or the natural sciences. So he thinks small – gardening tips, life hacks, folklore. Consider the latest edition’s two-page chart of “best days” for doing certain things each month, according to Moon’s readings. July 25, for example, is a good day to slaughter your cattle. March 8 is good for quitting smoking. (Isn’t it a day?)
The almanac envisions a world largely untouched by current events. Beyond a few articles on its website, covid has always been outside the almanac’s commitment to “new, useful and entertaining topics”. His articles are devoted to recipes, curiosities, gardening suggestions, jokes, a history lesson on mistletoe, an article on Ukrainian Christmas food – but no mention of why Ukraine might be interesting at the moment. It is a pale legacy for a publication that grew with a certain urgency: Robert B. Thomas hastened to publish the first edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac in 1792 just after he was discharged from the hospital for a vaccination against smallpox.
The book may be full of hokum, but it’s hokum with scope: Together, The Old Farmer’s Almanac (along with its main competitor, The Farmers’ Almanac) boasts a circulation of around 4 million copies. every year, with substantial web and social media presences – numbers that place the almanac in the realm of America’s most widely circulated magazines.
That’s why I’ve come to believe that, for the good of the nation, the Farmers’ Almanac needs a reboot. It would be nice to purge it of false weather forecasts and astrological hooey. Instead, the almanac should be more aligned with its original mission: to teach Americans to live in this new place they invented.
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This was Benjamin Franklin’s stated intention when he published his first “Poor Richard’s Almanac” in 1732. It was, as he wrote in his autobiography, “a suitable vehicle for conveying instruction among the people ordinary people, who hardly bought any other books”. Reliable information at the time could be scarce; the concept of a public library was still more than a century old. Franklin saw his pedagogical role in this regard as primarily delivering his famous folk maxims and proverbs. But as the country evolved, so did the content; during the Revolutionary War, many almanacs promoted the patriot cause. By the time Thomas published the first edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, America had ratified its Constitution but had not yet determined its identity. Thus, the almanac included information on state house rulers, machinery of government, court schedules, religious dates, even a history of Jewish persecution. He provided the contours of American civic life to a country that had not yet settled there.
As Jess McHugh notes in “Americanon,” her 2021 book of influential bestsellers in American history, Thomas’ almanac “began to weave a tradition of democracy into the everyday lives of average Americans, physically linking their agricultural cycles and the cycles of their government”. And by containing such diverse information, she adds, it has made Americans culturally omnivorous, curious and observant. That is, products of the same Enlightenment culture that created the country itself.
Admittedly, the old-school Farmer’s Almanac also promoted a flimsy mythology early on. He had a narrow idea of what it meant to be an American farmer, or an American period. He elided slavery, or black farmers, or much of the wisdom that resided outside of the white landowning class. But the almanac was generally intended to be an ambitious document, a unifying force for the way citizens conducted their affairs, committed to American ideals.
In this regard, The Old Farmer’s Almanac never strove to be particularly provocative, nor was it meant to be the stubbornly harmless mix that it is today. Its original purpose of planting stakes around which you could build a society gave way to something far more mundane: chicken soup for Soul positivity. “We don’t do politics; we don’t get involved in religious subjects in the publication,” the almanac’s current editor, Janice Stillman, told McHugh. “As I like to say sometimes, this is all good news. There is no bad news in the “Farmer’s Almanac”. ”
Physical books are alive with memories. Has the pandemic pushed them into the ether for good?
But: Vaccines are good news. Elections free of baseless accusations of fraud are good news. Books are good news, even if efforts to ban them are not. Climate science is good news, even if its conclusions are often not. Civic institutions that are significant to America’s definition of itself – its parks, museums, government, schools and more – are good news. It is not wrong to call these things “politics”, in the sense that everything is. But to treat them as intellectual third rails or divisive ideologies that cannot be talked about is to associate with an American population that generally knows better and certainly deserves better.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac of 2023 indicates that August 22 is a particularly good day for tearing things down. But the point is, any day is a good day to shoot down a bad idea and start fresh.
Marc Athitakisis a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
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