The ones that were here before us would plant corn when oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear. That signal for planting a crop is a classic application of phenology, the study of periodic events in plant and animal life cycles. These events, including bird migration, plant blooming and fruiting, insect activities and harvest dates for cultivated plants, are influenced by variations in temperature and precipitation.
Henry David Thoreau claimed he could observe the woods and identify the day of the year without benefit of a calendar, based on his acute awareness of phenological cues.
Gardeners or not, what would happen if we all relied less on the calendar and tuned in to the phenology of the Southern Appalachians? Here's how to begin:
Step one - consult the ncnatural list of bloom dates for 140 wildflowers native to the mountains. Mark the year according to the blooming of the skunk cabbage and dandelions in early spring all the way through to asters and witch hazel in the fall.
Step two - take an active part in advancing phenology related scientific study. Operation RubyThroat invites nature watchers to share their observations of hummingbird migration patterns. In addition to compiling data on hummingbird activity across North and Central America, the project promotes deeper understanding of the need for environmental cooperation among people of the Americas.
Step three - participate in research studying the effects of global climate change. Volunteers across the country can take part in the National Phenology Network’s project to observe the blooming dates of plants, such as lilacs, in multiple locations over multiple years.
Step four – slow down and tune in to the natural progression of the seasons with rituals, recipes, songs and ceremonies inspired by the changing events of nature.
Step five – grow more food and learn how the ones who were here before us used their skills of observation to learn from nature. But get ready now because you need to plant your beets and carrots when the dandelions bloom.
Whether you live in Cullowhee or Katmandhu, you too can become a phenologist.
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