I see in the new Farmers’ Almanac that its editors are touted as philomaths, indicated by “philom.” after their names, much as you would mark a person of high education as an M.D. or Ph.D.
“Philomath,” which means lover of learning, is an antique word, but at the Farmers’ Almanac, founded in 1818, old ways die slowly. A quick online search pulled up a brief explanation of “philom.” from the principal rival of the Farmers' Almanac, the similarly named Old Farmer’s Almanac, founded in 1792.
“Philom.,” the Old Farmer’s editors say, “is rarely used today, and not by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.”
Did I detect a small harrumph in that remark — maybe a suggestion that the staffers at that other almanac are putting on airs by declaring themselves philomaths?
It doesn’t seem that one can get a philomath degree, so maybe there’s a hint of vanity in calling yourself a philomath, like claiming to be pretty or smart.
All of this started when I opened the latest Farmers' Almanac, an exercise in digression I indulge when the new editions of both major almanacs arrive every autumn. The question of philomaths isn’t an earthshaking one, and that’s the real pleasure of almanacs. They operate largely outside the world of weighty affairs, a welcome respite from the headlines.
The new almanacs, released a few weeks ago, are called the 2020 editions, since in agriculture as in politics, diehards are always looking at next year.
But comb the almanacs from cover to cover, and you won’t find a word about Ukraine, the stock market or the Iowa caucuses. I notice instead a feature on the “10 Best Edible Insects,” in which cicadas are hailed as the “shrimp of the land.” These bugs, we learn, are delicious “roasted over an open fire or deep-fried and tossed with salt and seasonings like chili powder or honey mustard.” Whether cicadas will supplant crawfish as the delicacy of choice in Louisiana is a long shot, and I’m even more doubtful about scorpions, which, we’re told, “taste similar to soft shell crabs.”
Almanacs first gained popularity in America’s early days when farmers needed ready advice on horticulture, home remedies and animal husbandry. Times changed, farmers found other sources of insight, and the nation became more defined by suburbs than corn fields. But the farmers' almanacs endure, speaking to an audience of home gardeners, naturalists and amateur astronomers.
In this year’s Old Farmer’s Almanac, I’ve also discovered that the ability to sort out the stars Mizar and Alcor in the night sky is a good test of 20/20 vision. The desire to do such a thing, I guess, is also a test of whether you’re a philomath or want to be one.
One night soon, when I grow tired of the evening news, I’ll step outside and try to spot Mizar and Alcor, hoping to reclaim a bit of wonder in a dying year.