In A Word: Phenology



noun: /fəˈnäləjē/

the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

As a kid, I thought magnolia trees bloomed in anticipation of my early June birthday. These days, they celebrate those born in May (or even April), their lovely pink petals on the ground by the time my date rolls around. 

We see other changes, too. Mosquitoes begin to annoy in early May, when they used to wait ’til Memorial Day. Daffodils pop up weeks earlier than before. Ask maple syrup producers, and they’ll tell you they’re tapping trees — done when daytime temps are routinely above freezing, while nighttime still dips below — earlier each year. 

We’re not imagining this. The Washington Post recently put together a chart of how bloom times are changing. 

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Phenology is the study of these cyclic and seasonal phenomena, our dictionary tells us. The National Phenology Network (yes, it’s a thing!) keeps careful track of these changes. And some of us laypeople keep careful records of these changes too, such as the guy I knew who lived beside a lake who had spiral bound notebooks filled with the dates of when the ice formed on the lake and when it melted. He was following in the footsteps of his father, whose records went back to the late 1800s. What his data showed was what we’re all seeing: change.

Professor Ed Hawkins at the University of Reading in the U.K. conceived of “heat stripes,” a way to make clear the changes we’re experiencing. 

“No words. No numbers. No graphs. Just a series of vertical coloured bars, showing the progressive heating of our planet in a single, striking image,” is how his site describes heat stripes.

But what phenology doesn’t include are the feelings that accompany these long-relied-upon markers of time — when certain trees bloom, when certain bugs emerge, when certain birds return or leave. 

woven tempestry showing temperature changes
As part of the Design Museum of Chicago's At the Precipice exhibit, Emily McNeil's Paleo New Normal Tempestry shows Chicago's annual deviation from average global temperatures from year 1 CE to 2022 (left to right). – Photo courtesy of Design Museum Chicago

A group of women created the “Tempestry Project,” based on Professor Hawkins’ stripes, as a way for us to process our feelings around these changes and channel both data and emotion into hand-woven tapestries. 

The result is lovely. And devastating. 

For that, we’ll need another word. 

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Leslie Garrett
Leslie Garrett
Leslie Garrett is a journalist and the Editorial Director of Bluedot, Inc. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, and more. She is the author of more than 15 books, including The Virtuous Consumer, a book on living more sustainably. Leslie lives most of the year in Canada with her husband, three children, three dogs and three cats. She is building a home on Martha's Vineyard.
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