When I look at the entries in my hand-written garden journals that cover the months from the beginning of cold weather to the arrival of warmer days, there's usually very little noted. And yet something is always changing right outside the window, whether I'm paying attention or not. Observing those changes — and consistently noting and recording them — is how we learn about the natural world. It even has a name: phenology. It's the branch of science that studies natural events that recur periodically in relation to seasonal and climate change.
Here in Wisconsin, the most well-known practitioner of phenology was Aldo Leopold, whose findings were detailed in his "Sand County Almanac." Leopold kept meticulous records of seasonal events such as the dates of bird migrations and the flowering of certain plants. Nearly three decades after Leopold's death, his daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley, and her husband, Charlie Bradley, moved back to the Sand County farm and resumed keeping the phenological records.
As a result they wound up with two sets of data spanning almost 70 years, which gave them a personal look at how the seasons have changed in Wisconsin. The data from Leopold's shack — coupled with data about the ice melt from Lake Mendota in Madison recorded by the University of Wisconsin's limnology department — have shown state trends consistent with global warming. Though phenology can show such major changes, the record-keeping process can be as simple — or as complex — as you want.
In one of the newsletters from the Aldo Leopold Foundation, Nina says the Leopolds discovered that phenology and record keeping were "in our roots," and it became a way of life. In addition, she says those observations coupled with record keeping "slowly sensitized us to the land and our relationship with it." As Leopold himself noted, "Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search and the chance of finding order and meaning in these events."
One of the best ways to begin keeping your own phenology records is with the work-and-activity book put out by the UW-Madison Arboretum. "My Nature Journal: Explorations of the Natural World Using Phenology," a spiral-bound volume by Cheryl Lyn Bauer and Miguela Smith Fry, explains phenology in simple language and charming illustrations. It’s intended for children but will help anyone figure out how and where to start. I have a copy and love it. My journals tend to be filled with haphazard bits of information and it's not easy to compare sets of data. This little book makes it easy to keep consistent and simple records.
The book has a two-page spread for every month. The left page gets you started by suggesting what you might look for. There's room for about 15 entries, along with a place to note the date. The facing page tells you about what's happening that month and provides a list of tips. There's also space for drawings, photos and artwork.
The book has space to record "firsts" and "lasts" for each season. The fall/winter possibilities include first fire in your fireplace, first ice fishing shacks on the lakes (a big marker in Wisconsin), first snow day when school is canceled (four in Madison this winter; two for snow and two for cold).
There are pages for information garnered on hikes, tree statistics and leaves you've gathered as well as room for maps of your favorite wild places during each season. And there's a reading list (for children and their grown-ups) as well as Web sites with phenology information so you can become as involved with this subject as you wish.
No matter how simple or complex your observations, if you're a phenologist in Wisconsin you're not alone in your work. And you can connect your observations to that larger network by joining the 50-year-old Wisconsin Phenological Society. You can download pdf’s of their Phenology Guide and Data Reporting Form as well as find information on joining the organization. Annual dues are $2 (!) while $50 will get you a lifetime membership.
Parts of this post were previously published under my byline in The Capital Times.