The Old Farmer's Almanac for 2004: An Astronomical Review
by Charlie Cotterman
In this age of the Information Superhighway, computer monitors that you wear like a pair of glasses, central processors that go so fast you can pick them up on a police radar gun, and information that's outdated almost before it's publicized, it's refreshing to stop, prepare an adult beverage, sit back with your feet up, and turn the actual paper pages of a real book you hold in your hands. It's a bonus when the book is useful as well as interesting.
Such a book is The Old Farmer's Almanac, which bills itself as 'North America's oldest continuously published periodical', having been founded in 1792. Back then, your nearest neighbor may be double-digit miles away, you might not see anyone other than your immediate family for days or weeks at a time, and the most current sources of information could be months if not years old. Something was needed to get the word out on weather predictions, astronomical data (the seasons ruled early America's agrarian community, just as they do now), helpful hints about home life, medicine, food, people, and many other things. There wasn't a whole lot of loose cash laying around in the late 18th/early 19th century, and if one book instead of a handful could supply the information needs of the household, then one book per year it was. Such a book was and is The Old Farmer's Almanac.
Just as reading material, The Old Farmer's Almanac has a wealth of information. The 2004 edition has interesting articles on bloodsuckers (no, they aren't reviewing the potential '04 presidential slates), just what makes it rain, a tribute to ice cream, tips on making wild grape jelly, George Washington's false teeth, 'A Brief History Of Napping', a section this year specifically devoted to gardening, fashion, trends, and much more. But our focus is The Old Farmer's Almanac's forte -- the seasons, the skies, the stars, and the relationship of this astronomical menage a` trois.
To quote TOFA (as we will refer to The Old Farmer's Almanac, not to be confused with a competing publication of a similar name) 2003, "...As a calendar of celestial events, this Almanac chronicles the rhythm of the universe; since 1792, this has been our mission and our mandate...The calendar pages...are in essence unchanged since this Almanac's debut. Furthermore, since 1851, only minor modifications have been made to our cover...". Indeed, TOFA's main subject matter has been astronomical data of interest to the farming community, weather predictions, and keeping track of time. The weather forecasts are derived "...from a secret formula devised by the founder of this Almanac in 1792...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..." (TOFA 2003). Their caveat is well taken, as the Feb/Mar 2003 forecasts for my area sort of hit the lower than normal temperatures, but wildly missed the 18" or so of snow that decorated the Midwest (and my front walk...). TOFA editor Janice Stillman (the lady is the publication's 13th editor since 1792) dangles a tantalizing clue or three in the '04 edition; "...For years, you've asked us how we do it. Now, we're going to tell you...as we have claimed for years, the formula from which it derives and which was devised by the founder of this Almanac, Robert B. Thomas, in or around 1792, is a secret and is locked in a black box here in Dublin, New Hampshire, and shall not be divulged in my lifetime. But this much I can tell you: Robert B. believed that sunspots...influence the weather on Earth...".
In 2004, one of the big astronomical happenings is the transit of the Sun by Venus. TOFA's contributing astronomical editor Bob Berman writes an excellent plain-language article on Venus transit history, the when and where of this year's transit, who can and can't see it, and observing precautions to protect eyesight. There's also short summaries on the other naked-eye visible planets (all five naked-eye planets will be simultaneously visible at the beginning of April!), including their locations in the skies during the year, and their rise/set times. The bright stars of our heavens get listed, too -- rise/transit/set times for stars in a dozen constellations are listed. Eclipses, meteor showers, dawn and dusk twilight, tides, and glossaries of astronomical/tidal/almanac oddity terms are included. Your ranking in the local Pursuit Of The Trivial league will jump a long way once you've absorbed just the astronomical stuff.
The part that makes TOFA so astronomically interesting is its monthly calendar pages. Each month takes two pages to print. The left page details sunrise and sunset times, length of day, solar declination at noon, high/low tide times, moonrise and set, and the moon's place in the Zodiac. The right page deals more with earthly determinants of time, such as religious feasts (several of the world's major religions are referenced), civil holidays, historical events, and "proverbs, poems, and adages...". Also on the right page is listed lunar phases, lunar/planetary conjunctions, and eclipses. There's even some advice on predicting earthquakes on the explanatory page.
It's important to note that TOFA was founded back in the day when the economic center of a young America was the New England East Coast. All the days and times given for astronomical events refer to Boston time, and tidal events are referenced to Commonwealth Pier in Boston Harbor. There are extensive listings and tables to convert time and tide in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to your locale. Just remember to convert time and tide accurately; they wait for no man...
The Old Farmer's Almanac is a great wealth of information for the casual reader, the handyman, the stockman, and the gardener. The 2004 edition has interesting information (in addition to that listed a few paragraphs above) on quick home remedies for the miseries, the winning recipes in the 2003 recipe contest (the subject was potatoes...yum), zucchini recipes, general instructions on 'face reading', best fishing days/times, best planting times for various crops (do you plant by the light or the dark of the moon?), the expected dash of astrology (only three pages, and extremely generic), and of course, ads both classified and random, large and small, sprinkled through the Almanac; split your own logs, saw your own lumber, brew your own beer, and on and on.
The Old Farmer's Almanac for 2003 went on sale on magazine racks on its traditional date, the second Tuesday in September. (This particular issue will be in my bag of astro-books as I work with the local astronomical society at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton OH.) If you can't find a copy on your local publications rack, there is a website ( http://www.almanac.com/index.php ) that has more things available than a paperback book can offer (links to websites including The Astronomical League, some interactive star maps, and more). Of course, we're concentrating on the print version of TOFA, so we can go outside and see the stars as they are in the sky as opposed to on a monitor. There is a national edition, specific editions for the South and the West (the only differences are the city where times/tides are calculated), and a Canadian edition with specific north-of-the-border weather predictions and editorial content
The Old Farmer's Almanac is available by subscription (the current edition is $5, or the next three years are a total of $15), and there is a special deal where you get reprints of the 1904 and 1804 Almanacs for $5 each. Check the website for full details
( http://www.almanac.com/store/almanacs.html ).
Concentrating as we are on its astronomical information, the 2004 edition of The Old Farmer's Almanac is definitely worth obtaining. It's an especially nice tool for the beginner stargazer who isn't ready for manuals along the line of RASC's 'Observer's Handbook'. It makes a worthwhile and interesting companion volume to a star atlas for those of us who like to stand outside after dark and look up for hours at a time.
(OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: the author has no connection to The Old Farmer's Almanac, its parent company Yankee Publishing of Dublin NH, or its editorial or writing staff, other than that of a satisfied reader and customer. The author has neither asked for nor received any remuneration of any kind from Yankee Publishing. This review was written and submitted in the interest of public information only, and is solely the opinion of the author.)
The preceding article is published simultaneously (except as noted) in the following places:
Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy Bulletin Board
www.badastronomy.com for the site in general
www.badastronomy.com/phpBB/index.php for the Board (see the General Astronomy forum)
The James Randi Educational Foundation Bulletin Board
www.randi.org for the site in general
www.randi.org/vbulletin/ for the Board (see the Science, Mathematics, Medicine, and Technology forum)
The Miami Valley Astronomical Society message board
www.mvas.org for the Society's site in general
www.mvas.org/discus/messages/board-topics.html for the Board (the General Astronomy forum)
and depending on space limitations, will also be printed in the MVAS's monthly newsletter The Amateur Astronomer http://www.mvas.org/aa.html (past issues available on the MVAS site in Adobe .pdf format).