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A dictionary might say that to observe is to notice or perceive something, and register it as being significant. It’s that second half that makes observation more than just seeing.
One way I do that is to participate in the National Phenology Network. One thing they developed is Nature’s Notebook, a project focused on collecting standardized ground observations by researchers, students and just plain old volunteers like myself.
Phenology refers to key seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year. That means flowering, emergence of insects and the migration of birds or mammals with a particular interest in their timing and relationship with weather and climate.
I was drawn to this because of the idea of things like observing the migration of birds and how the timing relates with weather and climate.
This year the Network had 2 million records submitted.
I don’t live in a wildlife paradise, but there is a surprising amount of plant life and wildlife in almost any neighborhood. In my home area, observing a bobcat is possible but unusual. Observing the budding and blooms on rhododendrons is easy.
As a citizen scientist, observing the rare or the common is important.
With plants, you observe the same individual plants each time you visit your observation site, which could be your neighborhood or a nearby woods. For example, you could observe the same red maple in your backyard all through the year.
With animals, you create a checklist of animal species and look for all of them each time you visit your site. For example, if your checklist has robins, wood frogs, and tent caterpillars on it, you should record whether or not you see or hear those species anywhere in your site each time you visit.
You can choose one or more species from the Network’s list of plant and animal species. For plants, they would like you to select at least one plant campaign species. For animals, they recommend that you select several species that occur in your local area or in your state.
It is not difficult. It will help tune you in to the world around you and share it in a useful way to a larger effort.
My first association if I hear “Norwegian wood” is the 1965 Beatles song on Rubber Soul. That album, and particularly “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” made a big impression on me when it was released.
My second association is a novel I read back in 2000: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. At the start of that novel, the protagonist hears an orchestral cover of the Beatles’ song and it sends him to a place of loss, nostalgia, and back to the 1960s. I checked back on the book before I wrote here and discovered that the book’s original Japanese title, Noruwei no Mori, is how the Beatles song is translated and that it means more of a Norwegian forest (a wood) rather than wood as in furniture (which is what the song implies).
Mori or forest is the closer association in my third and newest association with Norwegian wood. This is the title of a Scandinavian publishing phenomenon that is not a Stieg Larsson thriller, but a kind of handbook for chopping, stacking and burning wood.
I first heard about this book on a podcast at the start of the year, but I only recently encountered the book on my local library’s shelf. Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Mytting is a bestseller in Norway, Sweden and Britain.
It is ostensibly advice on how to heat your home with wood. But the way that it goes into the history and details of the very old traditions for cutting and stacking wood and our more primal passion for open fires, seems to have moved people beyond a how-to or DIY book to viewing it as a kind of book of practical philosophy.
I have skimmed the book and learned about Scandinavian culture and more about the chopping, stacking and drying processes than I probably need. My home did have a wood stove years ago, but we got rid of it when my sons first came into our lives – fears of burns. I have a firepit now and I readily admit to really enjoying making a fire and sitting next to it with a drink and just staring at the flames.
But how does a book about chopping and burning wood become a bestseller? How many of you reading this have a desire to learn how to build a smokeless fire? It seems that the appeal is at least half in the parts that are less about making that fire. For example, he offers advice about choosing a husband based on his wood pile.
“It’s a very common thing among older Norwegian men to create this enormous monument of firewood that outlives them, and also a very nice heritage that they leave behind.” With a bit of woodpile envy in mind, size matters and so does creating a “sculptural stack.” In Scandinavia, local papers run competitions to find the best woodpiles.
Lars Mytting covers all the phases through gathering the wisdom of growers, choppers, stackers and burners. He covers the science of tree culture and of combustion. I suppose there is some “renewable energy” interest in all this, though fires are quite polluting, especially if built poorly.
I think the real bestseller broader appeal is more of a meditation on the human instinct for survival, and a call back to some part of us that has mostly died out. These ideas might rekindle a spark of the neolithic you hiding inside.
Who doesn’t love sitting by a campfire or fireplace? We even get into fake fireplaces and flames and have watched a Yule log burning on video. A Norwegian television program based on the book aired in 2013 and they followed the show with a six-hour video of an open fire in a hut. Along the way, it had a million people tuned in. People were live-tweeting the logs burning and commenting that it was time to get on a new log, or suggesting they add more spruce or birch.
Lars Mytting was born in Fåvang, Norway in 1968. His “definitive wood-cutting bible” is a good fireside read as we enter late fall and winter and fireplace season.
I am more of what Mytting calls an “armchair wood chopper” as I don’t go out in the woods with an axe or keep a stack in the backyard. But, as the author’s neighbor told him, “a wood fire is about so much more than heat.” Luckily, my Paradelle neighborhood never gets down to the -30C mark, but I get great comfort from the firepit even on a cool 70F summer night, and I love the smell of fresh-cut wood.
And I still want to cut logs and build a little cabin one day. It will have to have a little wood stove or fireplace too.
The scent of fresh wood
is among the last things you will forget
when the veil falls.
The scent of fresh white wood
in the spring sap time
as though life itself walked by you,
with dew in its hair.
– Hans Børli
A lot of you probably have bird feeders around your home. It’s a great way to see birds up close. It is a good supplement for local birds, as long as it is kept filled. But birds will sometimes rely on feeders and then when they aren’t filled or are taken away they may struggle to find natural sources, especially during winter.
A great alternative is to bring birds to your home by growing native plants that offer not only food but shelter and last for several seasons and can also be perennial feeders.
The Audubon Native Plant Database is a great tool to find the best plants for the birds in your area. I did a search for my area and found more than 70 plants paired with the birds that feed from them. Growing bird-friendly plants will attract and protect the birds you love while making your space beautiful, easy to care for, and better for the environment.
Another bit of gardening I have written about before is “guerilla gardening.” One of the methods is using “seed bombs” (AKA seed balls, for gentler folks) as a way to plant native plants in bare areas like vacant lots.
They are made using clay as a way to retain moisture as the seeds germinate and provide some protection from wind, sun – and hungry birds who would get at them before they sprout. People use artist’s clay, but clay powder, or unscented clay kitty litter can be mixed with water and is cheaper.
You mix in seed-starting soil or fine compost as a nutrient (dirt from your yard will probably add weed seeds which is not good).
Most important is adding seeds of plants that are native to your area. The database mentioned above helps there.
For your health, you may want to do some “forest bathing.” The term means soaking in the forest atmosphere. It originated nearly 35 years ago in Japan, where it’s known as “shinrin-yoku,” and it’s now catching on in the United States.
As a lover of the beach and ocean, and with 130 miles of Jersey coastline nearby, I have a lifetime of sun and ocean bathing. The way the smell of salt air, feet in the sand and the sound of waves create inner peace, is what is claimed for forest bathing.
Breathe in the pine trees, listen to the birds and water flowing over stones, see the patterns of green or autumn’s palette and how the sunlight changes the scene, feel the textures of trees and plants. Walk barefoot. No nudity or bathing suits required.
Shinrin-yoku practitioners do it for relaxation and rejuvenation. It soothes the mind, but can have real benefits, such as lower blood pressure and a stronger immune system.
Back in the 1980s, Japanese researchers theorized that substances called phytoncides (antimicrobial organic compounds given off by plants) produced the health benefits and relaxation.
You don’t need to be a scientist to know the benefits of time spent in a forest, but researchers do believe that humans are “hard-wired” to need nature in their lives.
One study found that the average concentration of cortisol, a stress hormone found in saliva, was 13.4 percent lower in people who were in a forest setting for just 20 minutes compared to people in urban settings.
Li Qing of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, conducted experiments to find out if spending time in nature increases the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, a component of the immune system that fights cancer. The study found that NK activity was significantly boosted in two groups that spent time in forests.
You don’t need to take a strenuous hike to practice shinrin-yoku. The practice may not burn lots of calories, so don’t do it as “exercise” alone.
I went for a cool, slightly wet walk today in my local woods. It’s hardly a “forest” but it has birds, wildlife, a small brook and I can go deep enough to not hear the cars and people who surround it. I bathed. I was literally a little wet. I felt better.
Next month is when many meteorologists make their predictions about the coming winter. The 2017 Farmers’ Almanac was published last month and very cold weather for the northern U.S. Even a few periods of unusually cold weather dipping into the deep south (Florida and the Gulf Coast) was predicted while the Western States will have a milder than normal winter.
But if you turn to nature for signs, it’s time to do your observations and make predictions within your local area.
Not all weather lore indicators is useful, depending on where you live. I can’t really take note of the early arrival of the Snowy owl, or the early departure of geese and ducks. (Geese and ducks in my area never leave!) I also can’t personally observe any early migration of the Monarch butterfly. All three of those events supposedly indicate a severe winter.
I look to all the indicators – science and popular culture. This is what meteorologists predicted last fall. My teaser post a few weeks ago about predicting the winter to come was popular and earlier posts about signs in nature that might predict the winter are perennially popular ones found in searches. (see links below)
As always, observations in your own part of the country should be more accurate than blanket U.S. predictions. Think about the weather you had last month, because August is said to indicate the winter to come. Every fog in August supposedly indicates a snowfall. (I observed no fogs. Does that mean no snow? I doubt it.) If the first week in August is unusually warm, the coming winter will be snowy and long. And what about this weather rhyme: If a cold August follows a hot July, it foretells a winter hard and dry.
Take note of how animals in your region look. Squirrels with busy tails and raccoons with thick tails and bright bands mean a rough winter. The same prediction of a rough winter is indicated by mice being very aggressive about getting into your house early. There are also claims that spiders spinning larger than usual webs and entering the house in greater numbers is a sign of severe winter weather.
In general, animals making preparations for winter early or in out-of-the-ordinary way, is a bad sign. That could be the early arrival of crickets (on the hearth?) or bees taking to the hive earlier. This is part of the same weather lore philosophy that originated the tradition of predicting spring’s arrival by groundhogs and other animal behavior.
The one I grew up hearing was woolly bear caterpillars (the larvae of Isabella tiger moths). My mother taught me that the width of the middle brown band predicts the severity of the upcoming winter. A narrow band means a bad winter and a wide band means a milder or shorter winter. Those woolly bears have 13 body segments and winter is 13 weeks long. Coincidence? Maybe. Probably.
Insects are popular winter weather signs. If you see ants marching single file or bees building nests high in the trees, get ready for a bad winter.
Labor Day weekend, we were prepping in Paradelle for the arrival of Hurricane Hermine and the wind picked up and acorns started bombarding my backyard deck from the oak trees. The squirrels and birds were also very, very active. You can attribute that to the coming storm, but acorns and squirrels have long been part of weather lore. A bumper crop of acorns (which has been predicted in my area) and squirrels that are more active than usual, is supposed to mean a severe winter. “Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry, will cause snow to gather in a hurry.”
Is there a weather lore predictor that you have heard? Leave a comment.
More About Predicting Winter Weather
Things are blooming in Paradelle, so I have started recording them in my garden notebook. Have you noticed any changes in when things sprout or bloom in your neighborhood? Maybe flowers tend to bloom a little earlier in the year or birds that used to migrate are hanging around your yard through the winter?
In some ways my garden notebook is a nature notebook as I find myself also recording first and last frosts, snow storms, the appearances of birds, insects and wildlife. Some of those things I report here, both seriously and also as a kind of weather lore. My posts about predicting the weather based on signs in nature seem to get a lot of hits, so I am not alone in my interest, scientific or not.
Most people have never heard of phenology. but if you have ever paid attention to the timing of natural events, like blooming flowers and migrating animals, you have been practicing this -ology. Phenology is the study of the timing of recurring plant and animal life cycle events.
If you want to make those observation to be more “official,” you can become a citizen scientist by connecting with groups like Nature’s Notebook. It is an online project sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network. Americans can practice phenology in their own habitat and share their observations with other members and have their data shared with scientists who will use the data for research and decision-making.
It saddens me how disconnected people are to the natural world of plants, animals, the earth and sky. s a lifelong teacher, it really saddens me to see how disconnected kids become as they get older. The interest is always there in very young children, so it is something that is lost.
We may not all be as observant as Sara Schaffer of Nature’s Notebook who suggests that we notice the “slightest blush on a maple leaf that foreshadows the coming fall” or the “new, more vibrant feathers warblers put on days before mating.”
Do you see the appearance of the first robin on your lawn as a sign that spring has arrived? I grew up hearing and believing that. But I have observed and recorded robins every winter. Once I saw four of them sitting on my fence in a February snowstorm. Robins as indicators of spring is a good example of weather lore.
Most robins do migrate south, but some are probably still around your neighborhood all winter – no doubt better protected in the woods than on your bare lawn. The robins that do migrate to the South in the fall, return in the spring, so then we see many more of them on that soggy lawn and field in search of food.
Geese flying south in Paradelle is a daily occurrence. They fly from the reservoir south to a pond. They never migrate and leave any more. What does that indicate? Perhaps some of it is climate change, but it is also the prime water and grass we provide them in parks, golf courses, school fields and corporate settings. Why leave?
Though thinking a captive groundhog can predict the end of winter is certainly weather lore, paying attention to events like true bird migrations can help us understand long-term trends and predict future events. That is why many observers may be reporting small changes that can help more accurately predict the long-term impacts of climate change and shorter-term events in the near future.
And observing when the smell of smoke from fireplaces changes to the smell of barbecue smoke is a definite indicator of suburban seasonal change!