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What Is Phenology & Why Does It Matter?

What Is Phenology & Why Does It Matter?

Phenology is a subject that you may not be formally familiar with but are aware of nonetheless. This is because exposure to phenological phenomena is ubiquitous – you can’t escape it for it is everywhere around you at all times. The irony is, sadly, that we are constantly among it but inattentive to its proclamations.

Before I dive in, let’s define phenology. It is described as: “The recurring plant and animal life cycle stages or the study of these recurring plant and animals life cycle stages, especially their timing and relationships with weather and climate.”

Phenology is perpetually beckoning for a glance, but most of us are distracted or uninterested because we have not experienced its magic. Your yard, local reserve, or any patch of nature you have access to is like the filled shelves of a bookstore, inviting us to peruse the colors, designs, and vast spectrum of details.

Most of us partake in a small number of these details already. We take joy in the changing colors of autumn leaves at their peak and the windy days that tug them off their drowsy branches that are settling in for a deep slumber. We sigh relief when we see the first spires of green leaves poking up through the ground in spring, with the more daring rogues choosing to tunnel up through the snow. Some of us are more practical, focusing on the timing when things can be harvested from our gardens or foraged from the land for consumption.

These observations stand out to us because they are major transitions, but the small details that happen daily are wondrous as well and deserve notice. Whatever your motivations are, whatever your degree of focus may be, phenology is an endeavor worth pursuing.

If you need more convincing, here are some specific reasons why phenology is important and deserving of your time and interest.

1. You’ll create genuine connections and develop a comforting routine. 

In a day and age where we are seeking real connections in what we do and with the world around us, phenology offers us substance. It’s a way to establish a connection with the natural world – to embrace and enthrall in its fits and spurts, rhythms and anomalies.

Too often we are removed from what is happening in the world around us. Sure, we are tapped into happenings on the news and what’s going on with those close to us, but we don’t even truly experience these things much since our interactions occur through phones, computers, and TVs. All the while the wonderful world of nature passes us by.

When you take an interest in phenology, it gets you to experience things for yourself through your own senses. It gets you in touch with things you never realized. Have you noticed how many changes throughout the year just kind of happen and go? And how those changes are gone before we can even fully appreciate it?

This is a byproduct of our distracted, quick-paced lives: exposed to lots yet taking in very little. But when you start seeing things differently and make your phenological observations a routine, this will change. By making your commitment to studying phenology a daily or weekly activity, you’ll establish a routine to look forward to since there’s always something new going on, even in the smallest of patches if you’re willing to look close enough.

You’ll soon find that you stop defining your life by the calendar and time as we have created it. You’ll associate time with tangible memorability. For me, I don’t think of the latter part of May and early June simply as that, being months and dates. I associate that time with the peak of lilacs and the pleasing scent that drifts through the yard. I associate it with the sowing of seeds for my vegetables needing the warmth and assurance that the last surges of frost have passed. It is, to me, the time when the sounds and sights of animal courtship are abounding.

2. You’ll contribute to an incredibly important cause.

Phenology is not just for our own personal fulfillment; it’s much greater than that. It is immensely valuable in seeing how our climate is changing and the way it is affecting our plants and fauna. Thanks to organizations like the USA National Phenological Network, you can make a big difference through your data collection which will help in the prodigious undertaking of studying our climate and the implications climate change will have on us and our flora/fauna.

They have provided a free medium in the form of their Nature’s Notebook that “gathers information on plant and animal phenology across the U.S. to be used for decision-making on local, national and global scales to ensure the continued vitality of our environment.” They also help you learn what to look for and how to record it so that you will not only get more out of the experience, but you’ll also be more helpful. I encourage everyone to take a look at their website and look at the wealth of resources and information that they provide.

There is an added benefit to you from these observations: increased resilience. If you start paying attention to what is happening and can establish trends in the way plants and animals in your space are responding to things, you can start to analyze, plan, and implement mitigating actions.

Many of us are worried, yet convinced that climate change and its consequences as inevitabilities that we have no control over. While climate change is a sad and worrisome reality, we are not powerless when it comes to the effects it has on us and the natural world within the confines of our properties. We have control over more than we think.

If we can identify invasive pests and diseases along with other elements of our ecosystem that are starting to be disproportionately affected by the adverse affects of climate change, we can do something about it. We can implement ways to ward off invasive pests, stem the spread of disease, and replace current systems with solutions better adapted to handle a newer set of changing conditions. Be a valuable contributor by recording what you see and gain value from it by using that information to build resilience within your space.

3. It’ll broaden your knowledge and help you develop useful, important, and interesting skills. 

Phenology will have you mesmerized by things that you may have only been mildly curious about before or about which you never had the slightest inkling. This is because you will start to build up a vast knowledge base of what things are, how they survive, changes they go through, and how they interact with other biotic and non-biotic components in the ecosystem.

We will never understand nature nor will we fully understand the climate, but it is thrilling to put what pieces of the puzzle together that we can. There is something highly fulfilling in being able to identify a particular type of plant, animal, or other form of life that you come across in the course of your observations. Many of us can only guess what we are looking at, let alone know how it works throughout the seasons.

We can learn a lot from nature and many things we witness can be extrapolated and applied to ourselves or other facets of our lives. So many processes and ideas have been and continue to be inspired or outright replicated by those found in nature. Once you start learning and growing in your knowledge of the natural world, it will become addicting and you will find yourself spending even more time outside wrapped up in its mystique.

I hope you have been stirred to explore the fascinations of phenology. Take the first step in doing so and the wonder that wells up inside will carry you through. You will find it to be more than an activity, but rather an encompassing exercise of the body and mind as you traverse the natural world. A world that is willing to let us in on its secrets if we just inquire.