Defining Phenology

Defining Phenology

Tools for recognizing the connectivity between culture, climate, and community

By Sam Graf
Backyard Phenology's Program Coordinator

Every year there is a day, usually in mid-May where the first monarch butterfly of the year is observed flying in Minnesota. Seeing my first one each Spring fills me with a certain kind of joy. Just before the Monarchs arrive, the plum trees will have erupted with their white flowers and soon loons will be seen diving in the lake. It is easy to get lost in all of the seasonal changes that happen in a year. Cherries ripening, birds migrating, insects laying eggs and then pupating, flowers opening, and new vegetables in the market. All of these natural phenomena are a response to climate —sunlight, temperature, precipitation, or wind— and happen at different times of the year in different places.  

Phenology is the study of when these events happen and how their timing is impacted by climate. The process of observing the changes throughout the year impacts our relationship and understanding of Place and enables us to notice the threads that connect culture to climate to community.

For me, the connection between the tangible, concrete, momentary observations and our exceedingly complex and often abstract climate raises a few big questions. What will be the cultural response to less snow in the winter or heavier rainstorms in the spring? What plants and animals are sharing their own climate stories with us right now? How can we listen better?

You could very easily immerse yourself in the scientific nuances of these questions but the process of observing Place and responding intuitively to those observations does not require any expert mediation. If I ask people whether they have a personal story about how climate change is impacting them, most people will say they do not. National polling data from Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communications generalizes this point. But when we start talking about seasons and how what we have observed has changed over time, most people have something to share. In other words, there is a shift toward people being able to see themselves in the story of climate change.

Recognising our dependency on the natural world can be difficult given how disconnected we are from the ecology that sustains us. Together, storytelling and phenology offer tools for people to visualize how we are connected to climate.

Checking the tree in your backyard for breaking leaf buds or recording what day the first dandelion opens in your yard may seem like a small game, but soon these plants will introduce you to their friends, to the insects that pollinate them, and the world that holds them. In the way that water runs to what is wet, any number of observations together will connect to something much bigger. In all of this, the hardest part is really just defining phenology. The rest is human nature.