Observing the passage of time
It’s hard to keep track of time nowadays. I often find myself trying to remember what day it is, or when was the last time I did something. I have work deadlines and homework assignments, but it all gets jumbled into one big blob of work. There’s just something about being cooped up at home that makes time slip by, unnoticed by my usual measures. That is, until I look out the window. Though quarantine has turned all of our lives upside down, nature stays the course (as always).
I recently found out about phenology, or “the study of the timing of the biological events in plants and animals such as flowering, leafing, hibernation, reproduction, and migration” (Budburst). Phenology is used to figure out the timing of crop harvests, allergy seasons, and even peak timings for cherry blossom viewings. It’s also used as a measuring tool for climate change, as many phenological changes happen with warming or cooling temperatures.
Phenology has also become, in my life, a measuring tool for the passing days. I check my neighborhood trees for new leaves and buds; I note new blossoms on a rhododendron during my daily walk. With less noise pollution I can hear more birds chirping and woodpeckers pecking. Sometimes I spend half an hour observing new growth and wildlife, while other times it’s a quick glance at a branch as I walk by. There’s all sorts of signs that time is progressing, if you look around. Let me take you on a little phenological excursion in my backyard…
There’s a beautiful Japanese Maple outside of my window. I step outside, and select a low branch I can inspect close up. See that tiny little red bud? Last week, the whole tree was covered in these tiny buds. It feels small and dense to the touch. What does the bud hold? The potential for one leaf.
Now take a look at the next photo. Notice the slim green growth? That’s a leaf, emerging from the bud in front of our eyes. The emerging leaf feels soft, but still noticeably folded. In a week’s time the leaf will unfurl, and start to expand. Inside the leaf, the process of photosynthesis will convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen, water vapor, and energy in the form of sugars. The sugars will nourish the tree, and the many other animals that depend on it. Thank goodness those leaf buds follow their own schedule, and not mine!
While I have the privilege of having my own backyard, phenology can be studied with just about any living thing around you:
- a tree on your block
- flowering weeds by the bus stop
- bees and other insects that visit nearby flowers
- local nesting birds in neighborhood trees
- baby rabbits and other small mammals
Pick something that you can observe regularly. You don’t have to travel far to be a phenologist – you just have to be observant. Send your finds to me on Twitter @kalynochka, or even submit your data to a national phenology database, Nature’s Notebook! Remember to observe wild animals from far away, and do not approach them.
Studying phenology gives me hope during these times. While much of our lives seem strange and uncertain, nature reminds me daily that every season ends with a new beginning.
Life finds a way, no matter the changes around us. Stay safe out there, and stay healthy!
Note: While I encourage everyone to observe the outdoors, please make sure to 1) observe wild animals from far away, 2) practice social distancing, and 3) follow local Stay-At-Home orders!