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Entertaining, Holiday, & Seasonal Articles
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Seasons Under the Sun: Signs of the Times
By Waverly Fitzgerald

In England, spring begins on February 1st, while in America, the spring equinox marks the start of the season. For many years, I've used the English date because it coincides with the signs I recognize as the beginning of spring in Seattle. It also shortens the period of winter.

In January, which is often the most depressing month in Seattle, gray and cold and barren, my friends mope around, dreading another three months of winter. But I am full of hope, keeping my eye out for the first signs of spring, which I've sometimes found as early as January 15th: the sweet scent of flowering privet, buds on the cherry trees, green shoots of crocuses emerging from the dark soil. I hug these signs to my heart, knowing that winter is almost over.

For years I've been encouraging visitors to my web site, School of the Seasons, to post the signs of the season in their region, without realizing that I was encouraging them to practice phenology. Phenology is the science of tracking seasonal changes. Phenologists note and record the date of unique seasonal events: first snow that stays on the ground, ice breaking upon a lake, sightings of migratory birds, the appearance of buds and then blooms on particular plants. Birders have lifetime lists of bird sighted. Phenologists maintain charts showing the dates of the same events, year after year, so they can identify patterns and say things like "the lilacs are blooming two weeks earlier this year."

Gardeners, of course, have been phenologists for centuries, carefully noting dates of first and last frost and that particular moment in early spring when a piece of dirt pried from the ground retains its shape when squeezed in the hand, indicating that the soil is ready for planting.

Show me a sign
The trickiest part of being a phenologist is figuring out what's a unique sign of the season. For instance, I have a theory that the squirrels in my neighborhood are more active in autumn but if I simply record the number of squirrels seen per day I might only be capturing the positive effects of temperature or the results of a squirrel population explosion.

Here are some unique markers that phenologists have studied: First leaf, first bloom, ripe berries, first appearance of insects, birds and frogspawn and the first cutting of lawns. Autumn markers for trees include first tint, full tint, leaf fall and bare.

To help people making these observations, phenologists have created specific descriptions of these events; for instance, first leaf is defined as the date when the widest part of the newly emerging leaf has grown beyond the ends of its opening winter bud scales. First bloom (for most flowers) occurs when the petals are open enough so you can see the stamens. Berries are ripe when they are soft to the touch or beginning to drop.

Find yourself a secret spot
Because of the wealth of natural phenomena, phenologists often focus on a particular place, which reminds me of the first assignment given in most wilderness awareness programs, where you're asked to locate a "secret spot," a place where you can sit quietly in nature for at least 15 minutes a day to watch what unfolds around you.

Last year I decided to focus on my city block which I circumnavigate at least once daily with Chester the dog. I bought a permanent Book of Days in which I made my first entry: sweet box blooming in pot on the porch — 2004. I note the specific location because I suspect orientation to the sun makes a difference. I'm looking forward to the time when my book is scribbled full of entries recording the shifting patterns of the years. I appreciate phenology because it gives me a longer perspective on the natural cycles. Single events take on meaning over time.

Get in touch
Phenology has many benefits, besides the simple pleasure of living more closely attuned to the natural world and natural time. Phenologists in Great Britain can demonstrate that spring is arriving earlier every year, probably the effect of global warming. Phenology also helps birders, farmers, gardeners and others by correlating natural events. Farmers know to plant peas when the daffodils bloom or corn when the apple blossoms fall. Gregory Scott, in his article on phenology, says morel mushroom hunters in north central Wisconsin know that when developing oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear, they'll be able to find morels.

"Many of the events of the annual cycle recur year after year in a regular order. A year-to-year record of this order is a record of the rates at which solar energy flows to and through living things. They are the arteries of the land. By tracing their responses to the sun, phenology may eventually shed some light on that ultimate enigma, the land's inner workings." - Aldo Leopold, A Phenological Record for Sauk and Dane Counties, Wisconsin, 1935-1945 (1947)

Phenology Resources on the Web:
A phenology network in Great Britain coordinated by the Woodland Trust and Centre for Ecology and Hydrology that encourages readers in the British Isles to sign up as recorders and send in their observations. The "live" maps show the pattern of current sightings.
A fabulous list of links compiled by Steve Diver for the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas, National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, including links to regional lists of plants in bloom, appearance of insects and birds, plus a link to all the other resources I've listed, including activities for kids and articles, columns and radio shows.
Scott, Gregory, "A Time For Every Purpose Under Heaven," originally published April 1995, in Wisconsin Natural Resources
The University of Wisconsin has been a center for phenological studies in the United States since Aldo Leonard and Sara E Jones first began keeping records there. You can download a manual for phenological observers.

Post your signs of the season at my web site, School of the Seasons.

© Waverly Fitzgerald

NFO contributing writer Waverly Fitzgerald is a freelance writer and teacher living in Seattle. She has studied seasonal holidays for more than 25 years. She shares her knowledge via a column in SageWoman magazine, a free e-mail newsletter, an online class on "Slow Time" and articles posted at her web site, School of the Seasons.


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