Several times on the trip I had ideas I wanted to develop or at least comment on in this blog. But before the ideas could be defined by words and therefore take form, they would slip back into that mass of neurons from which they had come…neurons which used to be a functioning brain. Two things came together this week and managed to dredge up one of those amorphous thoughts and now I can share what I wanted to.
My daughter called a day or two ago, rejoicing that it was finally warm enough (45 degrees) to walk to the bus stop for her commute into Seattle. This is a young woman who has spent most of her life in coastal California where the rainy season starts in October or November and ends about now and where the temperature rarely falls below the upper 20s. Seattle, to say the least, is different. She isn’t sure what is planted in her yard, she doesn’t know yet the earliest signs of spring, she can’t say whether spring is as late there as it seems to be in other places, and doesn’t know what yard work she might need to be doing. She’s out of place and out of sync with where she lives.
I suggested that Keri get a journal or a notebook or (knowing her) keep a blog about what she sees around her, and even said “there’s a word for what I’m trying to tell you.” Then her bus came. I had just read my blogging friend Karen’s post about improving vocabulary. (If you like words and writing about words, check out her blog here.) So rather than let “that word” slip away, I decided to look it up. That used to be awfully hard to do when you didn’t know what word to look up, but now we have search engines. It took me less than a minute to find my word. With my word came many wonderful examples.
The word I was looking for is phenology. It is the study of appearances. As it is usually used, it means being aware of the appearance of the natural world so that you know when to plant your garden or your crops. I remember learning years ago that the Indians taught the pilgrims to plant corn when oak leaves were the size of squirrel’s ears. For people who lived outdoors most of the time and were intimately aware of their environment, this was good advice. It comes from recognizing that oak trees leaf out later than some of the other trees, usually after the soil has warmed somewhat. Corn planted in cold, damp soil will rot. So it was helpful to have some sign to let you know when to plant the corn.
When we first moved to the coastal community my children know as home, I was as disoriented as she is now. When does the rainy season start? How cold does it get? When can you expect the first frost…the last frost…the end of the rainy season? Because I wanted to raise as much of our food as possible on our half acre and because my only gardening experience was based on Iowa conditions, I kept a journal for a couple of years. I jotted down the temperatures, what was sprouting, what weeds were appearing, what bulbs were coming up…anything I could observe on that half acre of weeds that I was slowly turning into gardens.
Some gardeners, Thomas Jefferson among them, keep such records for years. I was not only a gardener, I was a homemaker, wife, mommy of two young children, volunteer, part-time employee, and all those other things that “stay-at-home” moms do to while away their time. That is to say, I didn’t keep my record for long. But I did keep track long enough to have some idea what I was looking at. Over time, even though I didn’t write down my observations, I learned to recognize those first signs of changing seasons. I saw how wet years or dry years affected what I was seeing. I felt at home in my environment.
If you are in a new environment or if you’ve never really paid attention to the one you’re in, I urge you to take notes, either written or mental, on what is happening right now in this season that is supposed to be spring. Soon you will find a much greater connection to the natural world and who knows? Maybe you’ll discover that there is something besides the end of basketball and the beginning of baseball to define spring!