Using Phenology to Better Know Your Land

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When I was a child, I marked the year by things that I observed outside far more regularly than the dates on the calendar. Fireflies meant that school would be over soon. Daylily buds meant my birthday was right around the corner.  And when the redwing blackbirds massed in the wetland behind my neighbor’s house, filling the air with a cacophony of clattering calls, I knew that snow would be flying shortly.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was becoming a budding phenologist. Though my parents’ backyard was a suburban corner lot that didn’t top out half an acre, I knew it well. I could tell you exactly where to hunt salamanders in the spring, when the different colored wildflowers would bloom (even if I didn’t know their name) and the changes the trees went through during the year (the Cottonwood was my favorite). This deep land-knowledge was embedded in my young mind, and now as an adult looking for her homestead, I know I’ll cultivate that same awareness and love for my acreage, wherever it is.

What is Phenology?

Phenology is “the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.”  Not to be confused with the fringy study of Phrenology (the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities), phenology is a great way to track the patterns of your local area and give yourself a sort of “sixth sense” about what has and will happen throughout the year.

Bird migrations, insect emergences, and budding trees all fall within the phenologist’s purview. Additionally, when an appearance changes drastically, it is usually an indication of something gone awry with the land. My childhood self discovered as much when the salamanders disappeared from my yard. A development had just sprung up down our street that same year. The majority of the riparian forest around our creek was levelled, effectively killing off that little population (and effectively waking up my inner Rachel Carson).

How to Use Phenology to Study Your Land

So, what are some practical ways to collect and use this land knowledge? It can be as simple as jotting down your morning observations with your cup of coffee in the morning, or as scientific as using thermometers and rain gauges and graphing your monthly totals. Typically, the information I collect includes air temperature, soil temperature, weather conditions, and animal and plant observations (particularly first appearances!).

I like to take an artistic approach to this by illustrating what I see in a sketchbook I have dedicated to the purpose. For me, it’s less about having a “perfect” record, and more about taking the time to see, smell, hear, and learn outside.

And even though I’ve only kept a year’s worth of sparse records in my current house, I’ve noticed patterns. I was excited to see that the dark-eyed juncos appeared within a week of when I noticed them last year, and I am planning to set aside canning days when our mulberry trees should peak this summer.

It is a small, insignificant record, perhaps, but for me it generates a joy as I spend time outside, connecting with my land, keeping fresh air in my mind, and enjoying the surprises.

I have also found that phenology is a great way to get kids engaged with the outdoors. I taught environmental education in an inner-city school for two school years, and one way I tried to get the students interested in nature was by teaching them about their local watershed. Every day that we met, we took phenological measurements and observations of their schoolyard.

For these students — many of whom described going outside as “playing in their garage” — this was the first time they opened up their eyes to the diversity of their surroundings.  It was beautiful to behold their delight when they noticed sprouting acorns in the spring or found a new migratory bird in the fall. Nature was no longer just something they saw in a cage at the city zoo — it was accessible to them personally!

There’s quite a few resources available to the interested. Many nature centers keep their own phenology records, often supplemented by visitors’ observations. Most states also have websites where observations and past records can be read and submitted. And as far as books go, one of the classics is naturalist Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. Don’t be put off by the rather reference-book-sounding title. This is the book that got me interested in the first place — Leopold’s rich, vivid essays about his Wisconsin homestead and the changes that pass through it are a fantastic read.

A life aware of the land you’re on offers many rich, quiet little treasures. I find that once I am aware of something, I notice it all the more, and value it all the more. Regardless of how you learn the patterns of your land, I hope that you can find many ways to value the beauty it offers, both in the huge watercolor wash of a late summer sunset, and the tiny sigh-sounds of the warming spring wind in early ephemeral flowers.  

Photos by Michelle Shall

Andrew and Michelle Shall run The Redeemed Workshop, a handcrafted soap, art, and recycled good business out of their home in Akron, Ohio. Find them online at Simple Life Homestead, and read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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