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Humans have been keeping track of changes in the environment since the beginning of their existence as a form of survival. While we have come more disconnected with the original reasons for tracking environmental changes, many people still practice phenology, both as a scientific practice and as a hobby. In this edition of North Woods Phenology, Jay Andersen, with WTIP North Shore Community Radio, speaks with local naturalist Chel Anderson about keeping track of what’s happening around us.
Chel Anderson is a North Shore naturalist. She lives here in Cook County. She joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome back, Chel.
Well, all these many weeks we’ve been talking about phenology. Now, let’s talk about how other people besides you and me can record their observations, and how do we do that?
Anderson: Yeah, well, I think it is a good thing to spend a little time talking about, even though it’s maybe a little drier subject than some of the great natural events we get to talk about, but as we always say, phenology is a study, it’s a science, and it’s really about paying close attention to the lives of plants and animals and natural phenomena of all kinds. And, to be useful as a study, one really needs to record those observations. We can all enjoy making them, and I’m not going to diminish the importance of that at all, because I’m an inveterate observer and I don’t want to feel an obligation to do something that I enjoy. But, I have found in my own life as an observer that recording, making a habit of recording, really has helped me focus my attention and has helped me discover things on my own, not that they’re new to science or anything, but just new to me, that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, because I wouldn’t have been watching closely enough. So, in terms of a way to kind of experiment with this, if it’s something you think you might want to try, is to pick out something that you can easily go and look at everyday. Pick a tree, pick a shrub, pick a plant that’s going to emerge here as the spring comes on, and make a habit and visit that. Plants are good, because, again, they’re stationary. I’m not saying animals aren’t worthy of our attention, they are, but they’re much harder to track easily. But, you can certainly choose an animal if you wanted to. I’ll just use a plant as an example. So, pick a tree or a plant of some kind, and go out at this time of year and figure out where are the leaf buds, where are the flower buds, and take a close look at the bark. What does it look like now? Make as many kind of careful observations about that particular thing as you can right now. Then everyday, or as many days as you can fit into your schedule, go out there and look at those same parts of that plant and start to notice differences, because you will, eventually, begin to see differences. And, at some point, you’ll start to see big differences, even just from one day to the next.
We’re talking about mental time-lapse photography.
Anderson: Exactly. That’s great. Yeah, that’s a great analogy. And, if you want to go so far as to do it, take a little notebook with you, and when you are out there make notes about what you saw.
Well, if you make notes and file them in some way, then the next year and the year after and the year after that, you can make those comparisons and you can see how things have either stayed the same or changed. I know people do this with gardens, for example. It’s kind of the same process.
Anderson: Exactly. Yes, and you can begin to see for your particular species of thing that you’re observing or groups of things, and for your particular location, what is the range of time that the buds start to plump up on an aspen tree in your yard. And, is that the same when they do it on an aspen tree that’s just 50 yards away in a different part of the woods by where you live, because not all species are acting totally in synchrony on a day-to-day basis. They have a range that they might operate in. So, you can start to notice changes like that. So, recording helps us, again, focus a little bit more. You can record just in a notebook by hand. You can go so far as to take your written notes and observations and put them into a database, if you’re good with databases and that can help you sort and compare your information from year to year eventually. You can also decide that you want to check out the opportunities that are there for people like those of us who make these kinds of observations and enjoy doing it to contribute to big databases that are looking at changes and patterns and trends across large areas and across time. As you said, not just from year to year, but over large lengths of time. Phenology is not a new thing. Human beings have been using phenology in the sense of observing the world they live in since they came to be, because it’s how we survive. So, observing and taking note of when things happen is a part of our nature, and cultures have actually been recording phenological observations for millennia. Two great examples are the Chinese Cherry Blossom Festival and the Chinese Peach Blossom Festival. They have records going back over 1,000 years. So, you can really look at some spectacular trends in recording like that.
Well, I suppose that the early humans when they began to realize that certain things happened in certain cycles, particularly those who lived in areas where there was climate change from spring, summer, winter and fall, that it was to their advantage to know when those things would happen, so they could be prepared for it. So, yeah, it makes sense that they must have recorded it in someway or another.
Anderson: Oh, absolutely. It isn’t hard at all, I don’t think, to believe or know, just feel it in your bones, just like we feel spring, you know, it’s not just something on the calendar. I don’t know about you, but I can feel spring coming.
Yeah. It’s in my joints usually.
Anderson: Or winter coming. You know, these are some things that we, too, as a species have been a part of for our entire existence. Even though we’re much more at arms length from a lot of them now, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still a big part of who we are and they definitely are a big part of where we live.
Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks, Chel, for helping us understand how to keep track of what’s going on around us.
Anderson: You’re welcome!