Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Backyard Phenology

From Susan Clotfelter, The Denver Post
One day snow all over the ground, the next day muddy grass sprinkled with snowdrops shining in the morning gloom. Rain. A solitary robin appears, nearly black among the flowers and flies to a tree branch where it sits, silhouetted among the leafless tangle. This is phenology. I know by these signs that it's time, past time, to start paying attention, serious attention to what's going on outside, that is, to turn from observing shapes, colors and weather--those clouds, these tan grasses drooping along the path, that maple's shape--to keeping a sharp lookout for stirrings, returns, expansions. Time to, every day, go check the area where the bumblebees tend to emerge, notice how far the buds on trees and bushes have expanded, see what perennials are turning green at the base--and so on and so forth. Time to pay attention to details. There's a lot to do, it's a big job, this noticing, keeping track, celebrating. And then recording in my gardening notebook.

In my backyard, the snowdrops have always told me when to start my phenological year. When the first ones appear is when I begin making notes on plants, birds and pollinating insects, scanty at first, working up to a sustained crescendo and then diminishing with cooler temperatures and greater darkness. When I began doing this, at first just with flowers, the early snow drops generally bloomed in mid to late February. Looking through my notebook, I see I was pretty haphazard: some years I didn't get past June in my efforts, as though only spring-blooming flowers had appeared. In 2009, only the snowdrops are recorded--March 1. What happened that year that pulled me away from the garden? Only in the last several years have I gotten more comprehensive, as my understanding of garden interactions has grown; but I despair of ever being truly methodical or scientific.  All this time I've been paying attention, though writing not much down.

 For two reasons I've gotten more serious about record-keeping. One is coming to a greater understanding of Aldo Leopold and his emphasis on phenological notation. Another is that I signed up to observe for the USA National Phenology Network, whose mission includes tracking phenology in order to monitor the impacts of climate change. Thousands of people nationwide are contributing their observations to USA-NPN's online program, Nature's Notebook; these data are used in turn by scientists researching climate change effects. Our observations form an invaluable resource that would be unobtainable any other way. I like to think the records of my completely unremarkable lilac bushes are contributing to the common good.

Back to the snowdrops. Usually in my backyard they've bloomed in mid to late February. Last year, the no-winter year, they appeared earlier--my note says February 1. This year, even though we've had more of a winter with a nearly average amount of snow, the beginnings were mild. The snowdrops started shining under the pagoda dogwood in mid-January--the earliest I've seen them there. What else is happening? I'd better get outside and look.

Related Post:
Something New to Do with Your Lilacs

2 comments:

margaretart said...

Your musings inspire me to go look, too.

joelle said...

Beautiful writing... what a pleasure to read!