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Latimer paints word pictures that let his listeners see nature images as clearly as if they were viewing a video, and his musings have forever changed my perspective when I observe the plants and animals around me.
“The popple leaves were twisting and spinning toward the ground, just letting go of fall.”
“The oblate shape of yellowing dogbane leaves is reminiscent of a Zulu warrior’s shield.”
“Tamaracks at their peak of color look as if the sun itself has become entangled in the branches.”
“Milkweed pods burst open to expose the white parachutes of their seeds.”
“The ruffed grouse weaves a chain as it travels over the snow. Follow it and you’ll find where the bird spent the night.”
“Plum blossoms back in the woods look like little clouds caught in the trees.”
Hard-pressed to choose a favorite season, Latimer says, “That’s like asking which is your favorite child.” He is partial to fall because of the colors, the smells and the ultimate disclosure of the landscape. “Fall represents an assault on all the senses,” he says, “the brilliance of color, the crispness of the air, the redolence of rotting leaves.”
Everything is new in spring, though, giving him more events to record. “There are probably as many events to record in the fall, but it’s hard to record an absence,” he says. “Just about all my monarch butterfly entries in the fall have a question mark beside them. It’s so hard to know when the last of something has moved south.”
Phenology is nothing new. The first documented practice dates to the time of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), founder of our binomial system of nomenclature and originator of the modern scientific classification of plants and animals. In 1750, Linnaeus started the first plant watch in his home country of Sweden, selecting 18 sites and composing yearly plant calendars of leaf opening, flowering time, fruiting and leaf fall. He added to those observations a record of weather conditions, combining for the first time the key ingredients of phenological study: natural phenomena and seasons.
The renowned naturalist Aldo Leopold made phenological observations all his life, recording many of them in his much-revered Sand County Almanac.
Many places in Europe have plant-watch records going back to 1850, and Nova Scotia’s plant-watch network dates from 1896. In earlier times, such knowledge of natural events once meant the difference between life and death. Our grandparents, for instance, relied on phenological knowledge when they gardened, as evidenced by such maxims as “plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear” and “when daffodils begin to blossom, it’s time to plant peas.”
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