High summer. During this, the hottest time of the year, when the birds have done their nesting and mammals keep to the shade, it’s easy to assume there’s little for the nature-lover to observe. Traditionally, the Dog Days are a period of stagnation when the heat hangs heavy over drooping seedheads, signalling the degeneration that inevitably follows the exuberance of spring.
Phenology teaches otherwise. From the Greek ‘phaino’, to appear, and ‘logos’, the study of, it is one of the oldest branches of science, an area of nature study devoted to the tracking of seasonal changes and their effects on plants and animals. The eighteenth-century naturalist Robert Marsham, a contemporary of Gilbert White, did much to establish it in Britain, popularising the spotting of the first signs of spring such as the arrival of the first cuckoo or the emergence of the first cherry blossom.
These days, phenology is increasingly hitched to the wider issue of climate change, with citizen scientists being called on to chroncle the signs of global warming.
Personally, I prefer to think of phenology more as a practice that puts the focus on the ‘immeasuables’ of the natural world, as Waverley Fitzgerald puts it. Students in her phenology class have noted drinking sounds from the trees and the way the light strikes the dining table. It’s an approach which encourages the observer to become more attuned to their surroundings, rather than getting entirely caught up with the goal of extracting information to be used as data. Rather than acting as the handmaiden of Big Science, this kind of phenology has time for the in-between moments and non-events of seasonal nature study.
It’s very an approach that connects the observer to the specificity of place as well as a particular moment in time. In my own patch of residual suburban woodland at the moment, I am observing the progress of the tiny acorns in bud and the gradually-reddening of the hawthorn berries, their hue depending on whether they line a shady path or face a sun-drenched field. Now, who says there’s nothing to see?