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Phenomenal Phenology

Take time to explore the nature-climate connection.

| November/December 2008

  • Cumulus clouds
    Cumulus clouds are associated with warm summer days.
    Margaret A. Haapoja
  • John Latimer
    John Latimer entertains listeners with timely tales of trillium, aspens and Orion.
    John Bauer, KAXE
  • Pleurotus mushroom
    The appearance of mushrooms such as the Pleurotus species is related to weather.
    Margaret A. Haapoja
  • Blue Flag Iris
    Blue Flag Iris a common plant seen most in the North.
    Margaret A. Haapoja
  • Trillium flowers
    Trillium flowers are a sure sign of spring.
    Margaret A. Haapoja
  • Monarch caterpillar
    This Monarch caterpillar may be migrating as a butterfly.
    Margaret A. Haapoja

  • Cumulus clouds
  • John Latimer
  • Pleurotus mushroom
  • Blue Flag Iris
  • Trillium flowers
  • Monarch caterpillar
SIDEBARS
Tips & Tricks of a Phenologist
Diary of a Phenologist: A few typical entries
Learn to Speak Phenologist
Tools of the Trade 

Every Tuesday morning, John Latimer’s smooth voice flows like syrup over the air waves on KAXE-FM 91.7 public radio in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, during his 10-minute “Phenology Show.” Phenology, as Latimer explains every week, is the study of the rhythmic nature of biological events as they relate to climate. For 26 years, the 58-year-old has been keeping area residents in touch with the natural world. Joel Rosen, an organic farmer in Mahtowa, Minnesota, calls in regularly to report seeing the first robin, swatting the first mosquito or watching the ice go off his lake.

Listeners hear that the trillium have started blooming in Mike Rybak’s yard, or that the quaking aspens are flowering in the woods behind John Zasada’s house. Bill Berg reports that the loons have returned to Trout Lake, and Ed Dallas says the cardinals are back at his house near Deerwood, Minnesota. Latimer tells you where to find the constellation Orion in the night sky, why tamaracks begin to turn color from the inside out and from the bottom up, and how to tell a flock of cormorants from a flock of geese.

“People will say, ‘I didn’t know that,’” Latimer says, admitting he’s not a scientist but a rural mail carrier whose college degree is in economics, not biology. A disciplined naturalist, he seldom rises later than 5 a.m., and two days a week he spends the quiet early hours writing. “I think the thing that drove the whole works was my own curiosity,” he says, and he has tried to instill that same curiosity in his son and daughter.

Lately, Latimer has expanded his reach to a dozen classes at area elementary schools. Students call in to report their sightings each week prior to the show, and Latimer makes a point of visiting each class several times during the year to instruct children in the art of observing nature.



“I think kids need to connect with nature a little better,” he says, “and I think it’s going to be more and more important that they do.” He believes fifth or sixth grade is perfect, because children don’t have a lot of distractions at that age. “They don’t mind asking questions,” Latimer says, “and they don’t mind telling stories.”

In the beginning

Latimer began recording phenological events back in 1983 when he met Mary Barquist, a woman on his mail route who had been keeping records of natural events since the 1950s. She gave him some of her calendars, and he was hooked. Now his show is the most popular locally produced program on KAXE, and he says, “People are counting on me, and that’s always prodding me. In the back of my mind I keep thinking what’s new, what’s different today?



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