in Frieze | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

Future Systems

Almanacs worry the FBI, fascinate Dave Eggers and help farmers

in Frieze | 05 MAY 04

It must have come as something of a surprise for the two million people who buy the Old Farmer's Almanac each year to discover that the FBI was taking an interest in them. The Almanac is printed on cheap, thin paper and sports a garish yellow cover. Each of its 300-odd pages is a maelstrom of phrase and symbol, a multitude of fonts in a hundred different sizes listing religious feasts, fasts, aspects of the moon and tide levels. Obscure maxims ('It does not always rain when a pig squeals') follow weather forecasts written in doggerel ('North is drizzling, South is sizzling'). Bizarre admonitions ('Beware the Pogonip') and peculiar anniversaries ('27th August - C.G. Conn received patent for an all-metal clarinet, 1889') mix with tables listing the most auspicious times to castrate cattle.

Such a whimsical catalogue seemed benign enough until the FBI's recent announcement that terrorists could be using almanacs 'to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning'. Police forces across the country were warned to be on the look-out for suspects loitering with almanacs annotated 'in suspicious ways'. Despite its seeming preposterousness, the warning was not without precedent. In 1942 a German spy was apprehended on Long Island: a copy of the Old Farmer's Almanac - with its list of long-range weather predictions - was found in his coat pocket.

Almanacs were originally devised a millennium ago as scientific manuals, holding tables of sunrise and sunset, low and high tides and other astronomical events. Born at a time when science and divination wore the same robes, they swiftly took on the trappings of astrology as well as astronomy, and for centuries the almanac-maker was synonymous with the fortune-teller. Such books of divination were not without their detractors. As early as the 17th century the anonymously written Poor Robin's Almanac parodied the prophetic elements of the traditional almanac, its prediction for January 1664 stating: 'This month we may expect to hear of the Death of some Man, Woman, or Child, either in Kent or Christendom.' Yet while belief in prophecies waned, the format of the almanac (and of the less astrologically inclined miscellany), its conglomeration of data, lists, stories and pictures, kept its appeal.

Benjamin Franklin launched Poor Richard's Almanac in 1733 as a receptacle for his sonorous maxims preaching the wisdom of economy, industry and thrift ('Little strokes fell great oaks') amid lunar charts and eclipse predictions. In 1912 Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc created their own almanac, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), in which they borrowed the jumbled format of the almanac to juxtapose German woodcuts, musical notation, African and Asiatic art and paintings by Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso alongside essays by Arnold Schoenberg and Thomas von Hartmann.

By this time, however, the Victorian yearning for self-education had transformed the traditional almanac from a capricious selection of rural lore and superstition into a logical repository of data and empirical fact. The greatest and longest-lasting creation of this era was Whitaker's Almanack, an extensive, dry tome containing for the most part the minutiae of British public life (lists of the royal family's private secretaries, by-election results, weights and measures and so on).

More recently Dave Eggers' quarterly magazine McSweeney's has rediscovered the almanac form, most notably in its early designs, which echoed the typographical bedlam of the traditional zodiacal guide. Another recent edition, Schott's Original Miscellany, prefers a more austere, Victorian look. But while Schott's follows the stylistic traditions of the 19th-century almanac, it subverts the conventional verities by replacing them with deadpan ephemera ('Classification of Iceberg Size', 'Curious Deaths of Some Burmese Kings', 'Knitting Abbreviations').

The demystification of astronomical charts and the increasing computerization of long-range weather reports have, however, failed to bring to an end the traditional alamanac. Old Moore's Almanac, now in its 161st year of printing, still proudly carries its 'prophetic notes' for the world. The 2004 edition predicts 'instability' in Iceland in February, 'maritime disasters' in April and, somewhat unsurprisingly, 'tension in Palestine' in May.

That the prophetic almanac has not disappeared is cause for rejoicing. Where the term 'almanac' is derived from is not known, but it bears within it the magic of another word of uncertain origin - 'abracadabra'. Indeed almanacs, in all their many variations, form a branch of folk literature stretching back into the dark ages, their existence stemming from our most ancient and powerful longing - the ability to predict the future.

In 1815 a typesetter for the Old Farmer's Almanac accidentally placed a winter weather forecast for the following year's edition in July. At approximately the same time, the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora erupted, flinging vast quantities of dust into the air that blocked out sunlight across the globe. The following year became known as 'The Year Without a Summer' and throughout July and August 1816 snow fell along the east coast of America as the Almanac had improbably stated it would. It is agreeable to imagine that, by the very force of its prediction, the Almanac had conjured the eruption into being.