A Northwoods Almanac for March 19 – April 1, 2010
Mary and I live on the Manitowish River, so we pay attention to the phenology of the river – “the dates of arrivals and departures, the births, the flourishings, the decays and deaths of wild things, their successions, synchronicities, dependencies, reciprocities, and cycles – the lived life of the earth,” as Jack Turner writes in his book The Abstract Wild. We paddle and play, botanize and bird, ski and snowshoe, exploring the river and the woods around it every way we can every moment we can. And the longer we live here, the richer this community of life grows in our hearts and minds.
We journalize our experiences, Mary weaves some of the river’s life into her artwork, and I use sightings of this and that as jumping-off points for my writing and for my naturalist work.
I have to admit, however, that we’re guilty of not always keeping complete records of all that we see, so that we can provide absolutely accurate, objective data on the phenological changes occurring here. Still, we’ve kept good records on a number of springtime events, in particular the first arrivals of birds. For instance, here are our recent records on the arrival of red-winged blackbirds and robins:
Dates for Red-Winged Blackbirds Return to Manitowish
March 2, 1997
March 23, 1998
March 24, 1999
March 6, 2000
March 21, 2001
March 26, 2002
March 24, 2003
March 24, 2004
March 27, 2005
March 24, 2006
March 20, 2007
March 30, 2008
March 16, 2009
Thus, the 13-year average for the return of red-winged blackbirds is March 20.
Dates for American Robins Return to Lakeland Area
March 25, 1997
March 28, 1998
March 27, 1999
March 17, 2001
March 25, 2002
March 23, 2003
March 20, 2004
March 28, 2005
March 25, 2006
March 24, 2007
March 30, 2008
March 16, 2009
Thus, the 12-year average for the return of robins is March 24.
We’ve kept longer track of ice-out on the Manitowish River below our house. The 21-year average was March 18. The ice went out this year already on March 9, nine days early.
The value of folks like us keeping such records, a practice called citizen phenology, is the wealth of scientific, political, and educational value that the data can provide. But at the end of the day, the value of such observations really comes down to the personal wealth gained by each individual in learning to love a place and its inhabitants.
The goal in living anywhere is to no longer be a visitor or tourist, but to become a card-carrying member of where you live, to be someone who belongs within that place, to no longer be standing apart.
The process of paying attention to phenological events helps us to love a place. By bringing the landscape into focus, we can make it a true part of our lives, and then we can feel that we are no longer lost in our own neighborhoods.
Can a study of phenology do all that? Yes and no. Phenology is just one path to understanding the natural world. However, the study of phenology is a particularly good one because it can be applied anywhere, anytime. The center of the world is always where we are right now. So, we don’t need to dream of the big trip to Glacier or Yellowstone or some other charismatic site – all the world we need is right here. While hiking a charismatic mountaintop helps knock the blinders off faster than looking at a robin in our yard, major trips to astonishing landscapes can be a bit of an addiction. It’s a seeking of big highs, when most of our world is made of a vast assortment of little highs. “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common,” said Emerson.
Phenology is all about seeing the common, and seeing it year after year with a growing sense of appreciation, not boredom. Wendell Berry’s great quote, "The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling, and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home," brings it home even better. It’s a soulful perspective. Once we get beyond the initial attraction to a place and look deeper, we begin to see the soul of the lake, the soul of the woodlands, the soul of everything.
Thus, phenology leads to reverence and helps dissolve the perception that some species are worth saving more than others based solely on their beauty or usefulness. Of reverence, Gary Zukav (The Seat of the Soul) writes, “Reverence is contact with the essence of each thing and person and plant and bird and animal.” Reverence drives the endless passion needed to fight for obscure species like the Karner blue butterfly, Fassett’s locoweed, and the winged mapleleaf mussel, all of which have as much right to existence as charismatic species like bald eagles and black bears.
Backyard phenologists are also more likely to get the bigger concept of biodiversity because they have been spending time looking at common species all along. Backyard phenologists call me regularly to talk about grackles and chipmunks and all manner of common critters and plants. They have built a relationship with these creatures, and have found, at a minimum, a deep curiosity for them, and, at a maximum, a reverence for them. We backyard observers are connected in a hundred small ways to our place and its inhabitants. Biologist E.O. Wilson wanted people to take “a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.” Backyarder observers have the best chance to take such voyages as they observe the life around their home.
I think phenology also helps people talk across their fences. I’ve been envious for a long time of my 94-year-old father-in-law’s youthful connection to the land where he was raised and to his neighbors. Farming communities back in the 1920’s were deeply connected through the sharing of tools, labor, and information. Neighbors needed one another. Crops wouldn’t get in without help. If you got sick, your neighbor would milk the cows, and you’d milk their cows in a similar emergency. Not everyone could afford a thresher, so one machine rotated around through everyone’s fields.
If I ask Dad about something, he has a hard time giving me just the bare details – he talks about things always by referencing them to a bunch of other things. Say I ask him directions: “Well, that’s over on County J just down from the Hardy farm; you know, they’re the folks that had draft horses that they used to loan to us if we needed some extra power in plowing a rocky field. They were related to . . .” And on he goes, seeing in his mind all the relationships between people and the land and their work. Sometimes I get impatient with the stories, but Dad has lived a life where the stories of the plants, animals and the land blend with those of the people.
He has a blessing, a deep sense of community that many people don’t have. Today, many of us have gained the highly sought after glory of independence, but as the price, have lost our sense of community. We’re often surprisingly isolated. But observing the natural world breaks down some of the barriers because we have shared experiences in nature around which to talk, to lean over the fence.
I’d love to see a time come when people bought homes and received not only the title to the property but the phenology of the property, like a family album. This house album would point the way for every new owner – what to look for, where to look, when to look, and why to look. The writings, the photographs, the data would hit every new owner square in the head, hands, and heart – this is what this place has been all about for a century or more. The scale and scope of it would provide the framework for an ethical, if not spiritual, connection.
In her poem “Spring,” Mary Oliver writes, "There is only one question; how to love this world." Phenology is basic to that love. But love of the natural world isn’t just a one-way street. It’s also the path to understanding yourself. "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are," says Wendell Berry. I buy that. We need to know our backyards, our communities, our landscapes, and on up the scale, if we wish to honor the life we’ve been given and honor the lives of all others on this earth.