By the book 

In defense of the humble almanac

Not GPS modules. Not cellular phones. Not digital video cameras. The biggest technological threat to national security these days, the hot ticket, the article that most clearly bespeaks the intention of anyone caught with it to destroy America, is the almanac.

Why not an astrolabe? A sextant? Like the almanac, neither is exactly at the cutting edge of technology—unless you happen to be an 18th-century farmer, in which case you would have already known if it was going to be a good winter for, say, fomenting agrarian revolt by divining clues from nature. Bird behavior and killing frosts and so on. “Hmm, let’s see. The crescent moon is waxing and the squirrel cannot see its breath—that bodes ill for slaughtering hogs, goodly wyfe, yet splendidly for steering a burning hay-cart into the local tax collector’s office!”

The statement issued last month by the FBI advising law enforcement officials to be on the lookout for suspicious persons carrying almanacs struck many sensible people as indisputable proof that the government had finally lost its mind (although at least no one’s advocating burning them yet). The statement didn’t mention any specific brand names (and different almanacs provide different kinds of subversive information), but imagine getting so up in arms about a publication as benign as The Old Farmer’s Almanac. The annual publication includes astrological tables and long-term weather forecasts (prepared 18 months in advance of publication), but as an instrument for predicting anything it’s barely more reliable today than when it was first published in 1792. Any potential enemy of the state seeking detailed timetables for anything beyond tides, the declination of the sun and phases of the moon (and the agricultural implications of this data) is looking in the wrong place. A lot of the same information, by the way, is available in the daily newspaper—as are equally iffy weather forecasts.

As for detailed information about potential targets (another specific FBI concern): Have FBI agents ever actually looked at a World Book or Information Please almanac? Using the most detailed map included in either publication, a terrorist would be unable to name a single highway or city street, much less find technical data for a particularly vulnerable bridge or building. He’d be much better off picking up a few pamphlets from the local chamber of commerce or spending a few hours at the public library. Implying that an almanac makes a good day-planner for terrorist activity is like saying that the World Book Encyclopedia entry on sex is a hotbed of erotic fiction possibilities. There’s simply nothing in there that you can’t find someplace else, and in far greater detail.

However: Curiously absent from most reporting on the FBI advisory is the odd fact that something very similar has happened before, during World War II. In 1942, a German spy apprehended on Long Island was found to have a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac in his possession, leading intelligence officers to believe that the Germans were using weather forecasts to plan acts of sabotage (it wasn’t called terrorism yet) on U.S. soil. This development led to a federal mandate called the Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press, which among other things prohibited the publishing of weather forecasts.

Then-editor Robb Sagendorph convinced the government to let him publish weather indications in the New Hampshire-based Almanac, rather than forecasts, thereby getting around the Code of Wartime Practices essentially on a technicality, and “thanks” to federal largesse. Perhaps, by current hysterical standards, Sagendorph and his staff would have been worthy of suspicion simply because they had to resort to slightly devious measures to safeguard their civil rights—which, lest we forget, are granted absolutely by the First Amendment, and for that reason are the government’s neither to “give” nor to take away.

The 1942 incident wasn’t even the first instance of a group trying to dictate or abridge the contents of an almanac—indeed, as a popular literary format, the homely almanac has always had to contend with reformers of one kind or another. During the 19th century, astrological almanacs came under attack by two very different groups of middle-class social reformers, one advocating scientific rationalism and the other seeking to sow the seeds of political consciousness. An organization with the marvelous name of Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge printed reams of counter-almanac broadsides and manuals of facts and statistics, using the same chapbook-style format as its targets to counter what it perceived as “superstition-peddling” by top-selling almanacs like the Vox Stellarum. On the other end, radical journalists like Richard Carlile and Joseph Barker railed against the same, predominantly rural, “superstitious ignorance” disseminated through astrological almanacs as an obstacle to progressive thought, again using the same simple and cheap-to-print format.

And to a degree they succeeded. Almanacs, for various reasons, became less prophetic and rooted in astrology—that is, less “superstitious”—until they barely resembled their former selves. According to Maureen Perkins, author of Visions of the Future: Almanacs, Time and Cultural Change, by the end of the 19th century the almanac calendar had become “no more than a succession of numbers on a printed sheet.”

Nowadays The Old Farmer’s Almanac is mostly for fun. I read it primarily for the “Anecdotes and Pleasantries” section—the terrorist equivalent, I suppose, of someone saying they look at Playboy for the articles. I’ve learned to hypnotize a chicken (three different ways), how to tell if my toads are about to mate and all kinds of other irrelevant skills. But I have yet to come across an article that might help me or anyone else strike a blow against America. Not that I’m looking, mind you.

And if carrying an almanac around with me—which I did, just this morning—makes me more of a suspect, I guess I’ll just have to live with the shame. And so will my mom, who sends me the new edition every Christmas.

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