Patterns of Nature

By: Mark Kane , 3:06 PM GMT on June 16, 2011

Photo of a MinkMink - Photo courtesy of The Guardian

"Pattens of Nature" by - Lisa Marini Finerty

Did you know that forsythia blooms when the soil temperature is at 60 degrees F (15 degrees C)? Did you know that minks ovulate based on the change in the hours of sunlight, and, if bred at that moment, deliver their litters 63 days later?

A very traditional science of natural observations and correlations by people who live close to nature is making a comeback. Phenology is colorful lore, based on oral tradition, about the seasonal sequence of natural plant and animal phases.

The Almanac Tips category of “Farm Wisdom” on YourGardenShow is a collection of some of these colorful anecdotes, the so-called ‘phenophases’: “Plant your corn when the oak leaves are the size of mice ears” and “When the forsythia blooms, attend to the crab grass.” These sayings make sense because nature’s events correlate with air and soil temperatures. In the centuries before agricultural and weather instrumentation, those who needed to live by their natural wits depended on this kind of lore for the secrets to food security and survival.

Photo of Forsythia in bloomForsythia - Photo courtesy of Missouri Botanic Garden

America’s first naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, observed natural correlations over a five-year period at Walden Pond 150 years ago. From his writings, we know a lot about the network of nature on its shores, then and now. In fact, Thoreau’s disciplined observations and structured data records are even now being used for scientific enquiry by some of the world’s most respected scientists. Dr. Charles Davis, a professor at Harvard University is recording and comparing modern phenophases which may also further corroborate a soon-to-be-announced shift in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zone at the lake.

Photo of Walden PondWalden Pond in October, Concord Massachusetts - Photo courtesy by John Phelan

While phenophase hearsay and related folkloric practices were abandoned in the U.S. once there was widespread use of instrumentation after WWII, phenology is increasingly of interest these days to people who are growing food (rather than producing large-scale crops) in pots and containers, in dense urban areas, balconies and community gardens. Today, even professional growers with sophisticated instruments visually monitor local pollinator/pest lifecycles, and public policymakers empirically record early-stage allergen producers to gain days for preparedness in local communities. Growing Degree Days and Heat Tolerance crop comparisons now bring professionals and biological scientists together. In fact, the age-old science of phenology is a tool being used to help guide modern day's most sophisticated, calibrated instruments and partnerships.

Pollen, seed, and wildlife corridors connect us all. Nature is a network which doesn’t recognize sovereign borders: what one person sees in one corner can have a profound effect in another. What happens in watersheds and microclimates is important, and we benefit from communicating with those who alert us to “the beating of a butterfly wings” in their backyard.*

(*In his famous 1963 paper Edward Lorenz, an MIT meteorologist presented a paper that explains how, through the chaotic motion of the atmosphere, a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing could affect the weather thousands of miles away some time later. This sensitivity is now called the "butterfly effect".)

Photo of Lilac leafing out Lilac leafing out - Photo courtesy of the U.S.A National Phenology Network

The need for multipoint, simultaneous observation and input of environmental data is clear. Microbes and insects are introduced from one part of the world to another as airplanes crisscross the globe several times a day. Storms are changing in character. In fact, in 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense identified the shift of climate and patterns as "the greatest threat facing U.S. national security” (bibliography; CIA center).

European families and family farmers have a well-developed phenology tradition. In recent years, even urban citizen volunteers monitor birds and bees and pollen, and report on the harvest dates of their food. Dr. Arnold van Vliet, a professor at Wageningen University (the agricultural university of the Netherlands) and founder of, gave a radio interview ten years ago one Sunday morning and attracted 2,000 people to count neighborhood songbirds; now he is consulting and coordinating Citizen Science programs throughout Europe and the U.S. Almost 10,000 people currently count various phenomena every Sunday morning in the Netherlands -- a country not even 5% the size of the U.S.! Without citizen response to the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull disaster in Iceland, the volcano’s eruption would have been more disruptive and dangerous than it was. Bottom line, individual actions on a local level can have a significant impact. launches its Citizen Science platform and initiatives this month. It's like a nature scavenger hunt for gardeners, naturalists and their friends, and it's directed by the U.S’s top environmental scientists. This pioneering Citizen Science platform will deliver information to the U.S.A National Phenology Network (USA-NPN), the portal for NASA, NOAA, USGS, the National Science Foundation and National Park Services, and partner universities.

Participating in Citizen Science is an effective way for people to make a practical contribution to environmental challenges that are bigger than all of us. It's easy, interesting, and valuable – and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts! Remember… when the first leaf appears on the lilac then it's time plant your cool season crops of lettuce, carrots, beets, broccoli and spinach.”

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2. Proserpina
12:08 PM GMT on August 29, 2011
Very interesting blog, it inspires me to do a little research into Phenology. I am particularly fascinated with the 'butterfly effect' idea.
Member Since: May 6, 2008 Posts: 195 Comments: 19677
1. pittsburghnurse
1:00 AM GMT on July 10, 2011
Very much appreciate your blog. Thank you for posting. Informative and interesting.
Member Since: October 14, 2006 Posts: 1 Comments: 639

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