Ada Shaw is a student at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, majoring in Spanish and sociology (minoring in writing), and for an assignment as part of a requirement for her participation in the college’s Insginis Honors Program, she chose to write an “experience” in the style of my class text, The Writer’s Practice, which she had used in her advanced composition course. She also sent it to me, and my first reaction to Ada Shaw’s version of a Writer’s Practice experience was how well it touched on various aspects of the writer’s practice – observation, drawing inferences from observation, as well as integrating outside information and secondary sources into the written product. It’s a great lesson in exploring the world around us and stoking curiosity. If there is ever to be a 2nd edition of the book, it’s going in, with all credit to Ms. Shaw.
I also thought, I want to do that. I immediately knew when I would do it, the morning of Tuesday November 3rd, following the casting of my vote in the election. It seemed to me that others who may be feeling anxious over the outcome may also enjoy trying Ada Shaw’s experience of phenology (observing the natural world) as a way to at least temporarily detach from that anxiety. I’ve included Ada Shaw’s phenology experience here, along with her example of her own experience. – John Warner
Phenology (Observing the Natural World)
By Ada Shaw (in the style of The Writer’s Practice)
When I was in fifth grade, I spent countless hours out in the woods recording bird calls, the hue of the leaves next to me, and the way the wind felt brushing against my cheek. I was quite the poet back then. Well, technically, what I was was a phenologist.
Phenology is best described as the observation of the natural world and its cycles and seasons. In essence, it’s all about using the 5 senses in order to fully record on paper the day around you, particularly focusing on the natural world. Serious phenologists will do this for years on end, and will combine it with other methods of collecting data, such as soil temperature and cloud status, in order to keep track of the seasons and note changes in climate and in nature year by year.
I want you to do something similar, but on a smaller scale. For 30 minutes, go find yourself a quiet spot in nature – whether it be in a park or on top of a mountain – and do your best to observe as much as possible using all five senses.
Touch: What is touching you? How cold is it? What is the texture of the underside of the leaf next to you? The texture of the bark on the tree you’re leaning against? How does the day feel to you?
Hearing: What noises catch your ear? What bird calls can you recognize? Are animals scurrying about in the underbrush? What about your own noises? Your breath? Airplanes? Silence?
Smell: What do you smell? Is there a particular plant with a strong odor? Is it pleasant?
Sight: What do you see? Animals, plants, clouds, trees, leaves, etc? Describe everything you can see to the best detail possible, zooming out to the wide-angle of the whole scene and then into smaller phenomena that catch your eye or strike you as unique.
Taste: Be careful with this one! Don’t taste anything you don’t know is safe to eat! If there’s sassafras nearby, don’t be afraid to chew on the stem, or if there is some wild raspberries, eat a couple. However, this sense is the least important and the most dangerous, so don’t do anything you might regret!
Your audience is going to be unique this time: imagine your audience is the environmental studies department of your college. Imagine, as you write this, that you are going to have to stand up in front of a class and read aloud your observations. You are going to want to appear somewhat knowledgeable, so look up some bird calls or wildflowers before you go out into the woods. If possible, bring a field guide or two to be able to actively identify species around you. A few scientific – or even colloquial – names inserted into your observations will increase your credibility. Keep your observations sharp, simple, and to the point, but this is nature writing, so let yourself become inspired by your surroundings, and don’t be afraid to get a little poetic!
1. Obtain a pencil, a piece of paper, and something hard to write on.
You are going to be taking all of these out into the woods, or some other natural setting, and so you need to make sure the pencil is sharp (and maybe bring an extra), and you have something you can write on. There will be no desks for you in the wilderness, so this last piece is very important.
2. Find a quiet spot where you can observe the natural world.
Ideally this spot will be in some nature preserve, far from the sounds of the city. This is a time to focus on nature, and cars and airplanes and honking can really take away from the concentration on the smaller noises of bird calls, leaves rustling, and tiny squirrel feet hitting the forest floor.
Write down everything you observe. Do not hold back. Go ham! Write down every tiny detail you can possibly conjure up. Dig deep into your observation skills. If this were a competition, try to be the best observant nature lover of all time. You are John Muir and Henry David Theoreu combined, that’s how attuned to nature you are. No detail is too small for a phenologist to capture, and no detail too large, either.
4. Revise, edit, polish.
Read over your piece. Did you capture the feeling of the day? Specific natural phenomenon you observed with your own eyes? Is the tone conducive to a 30 minute sit-and-observe in nature? Did you put in specific details about specific animals, plants, etc? Did you combine these details with some larger pictures of the overall scene?
After taking 30 minutes to simply observe and write, how did you feel about your observation skills in general? Did you find it easy to slow down and reconnect with nature or was it hard to take that time to really be in the moment?
How was writing observations more or less difficult than writing other pieces? Was it fun? Was it dreadful? I’ve found everyone has a different opinion.
If you were to do this again, what would you work on? What aspects of nature would you like to record on a monthly basis in order to track the cycles and seasons?
Personally, I track the leaves every year. I keep track through pictures which days the leaves start to turn in the fall, and in the spring every year I take a picture the first day the red maple tree in my front yard has bright red buds. It keeps me sane, and helps keep me grounded. Consider doing a ritual of this sort of your own.
My Phenology: By Ada Shaw
11:30 a.m. Sunday Morning, Oct. 25th, 2020
43 degrees, partly cloudy
Wind: E, 1 mph
30.24 → barometric pressure
Moon: First Quarter
It is October 25th, and I believe that perhaps this is THE weekend for fall colors here in Grand Rapids, MI. This weekend comes every year – it is the serendipitous moment when the world is taking a deep, beautiful breath before the leaves come crashing down and late fall/ early winter closes in on us. I am sitting on the steps in Holmdene Garden at Aquinas College, looking out over the terraced patches of grass, lined by stone pathways and little ponds partially covered in lily pads. To my right, I swear the woods are on fire: blazing yellow and orange, barely a single drop of green to be seen.
I trace my eyes along the treeline, following it closer to the middle of my view, and I see that more trees still retain the traces of chlorophyll that gives them their green color. A couple of junipers stand on the edge of the wood: these evergreens will not turn color and lose their leaves this year or ever. Way off, when I turn my head to the left, there’s a line of trees that are green, bright yellow, and deep mustard, all in succession. The middle tree – a maple – has a balayage of green to yellow that strikes me as particularly unique, and particularly beautiful.
A wind picks up and blows an American Beech leaf or two off the branch and onto the ground. It is Sunday, so it is quiet and still, but the sound of cars on Fulton St nearby is ever-present. I hear a tufted titmouse call out in its throaty tone (I think it’s a tufted titmouse but I am a little rusty) and a blue jay calls from the more densely wooded area. The air is no longer so full of crickets, frogs and songbirds as it is in the summer, and I miss the vibrancy of full-fledged summerlife. Autumn begins to feel like a skeleton to me once the Canadian Geese head south and the wind rattles the leaves instead of rustling them. The air, too, loses its patent Michigan smell, full of humidity and lushness, and instead it feels thin and lifeless, with nothing at all particular to catch my nose.
The air is cold, and a big winter jacket is needed to be able to stand the temperature outside for a significant amount of time. As I write, my fingers have begun to be white and a lot less mobile as I sit here in Holmdene Garden, writing phenology for the first time in a very long time. I forgot how it feels to really pay attention – even for only 30 minutes – to the crows, and the wind, and the brilliant colors. It’s so important, and maybe even innate in us, to watch and keep track of the seasons.
Pretty soon the leaves will fall – the abscission layers having formed to cut off the life-giving chlorophyll – and our whole world will enter a new season, a new way of life. A pandemic is raging across the country, growing in numbers everyday (6 months into this thing), college students are writing final papers, and a big grey cloud is descending quietly over Michigan, destined to make us all a bit sadder in the upcoming months. The world is changing, the sun is setting sooner, and as we move into this upcoming season, we will have a choice: do we choose to hold on to hope until spring? Or do we give into the deathly tendencies of winter? We all must choose together, and choose now, before the season arrives and our destiny is chosen for us.