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dragon

image via The Dragon

There is a system called Wu Xing by the Chinese, which translates to the Five Phases (sometimes as the Five Elements, Steps etc.). The “Five Phases” are Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water (水 shuǐ).

Wu Xing also correlates to the seasons.

Wood is Spring, a phase of growth, which generates abundant wood and vitality.

Fire is Summer, full of swelling and flowering, and filled with fire and energy.

There is a shorter in-between transitional phase known as Late or Long Summer.

Metal is the element of Autumn when there is harvesting and collecting.

Water represents Winter, the period of retreat, stillness and storage.

Each season or “phase” also corresponds to other things. For example, the direction east and a green dragon correspond to springtime.

The Chinese also use Wu Xing to describe interactions and relationships between such diverse activities as music, military strategy, martial arts and how to heal the human body.

I view it as a way of thinking about nature and another way to encourage a closer observation of nature.

For a few weeks in February, it sure felt like spring was very near in Paradelle – or maybe it had arrived early – even if the calendar and Earth’s tilt said otherwise. I saw crocuses and daffodils up and blooming. Tree buds seemed to be starting their bud burst.

Then the thermometer reversed itself and we had our biggest snow of the winter.

The news reported that the cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital are threatened, and the ones in New Jersey, which generally peak in early April, might also be affected. [Not So Trivial Fact: New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C. – the largest cherry blossom collection in the United States. But the Branch Brook Park cherry blossom webcam in Newark just shows bare trees and snow as I write this.]

I have written before about the study of cyclic, seasonal natural phenomena which is called phenology. The National Phenology Network tracks “Nature’s Calendar” via phenological events. But can we actually predict the seasons with any accuracy?

These nature observations include the ones we all have been observing lately, such as trees and flowers, but also ones that you may not be able to observe or just don’t pay attention to. Those signs of seasonal change include male ungulates, such as elk or deer, growing antlers at the beginning of the rut and breeding season each year, mammals that hibernate seasonally to get through the winter, and bird migration during the year.

Other than the false Groundhog Day forced observations, phenological events can be incredibly sensitive to climate change. That change can be year-to-year, but the timing of many of these events is changing globally – and not always in the same direction and magnitude.

map

Spring leaf anomaly: dark red indicates areas of early bud burst, with some areas as great as 21 days early. It should be noted, that areas around Los Angeles are conversely nearly 21 days behind schedule. Image via blogs.plos.org

According to a Public Library of Science (PLOS) blog, “From 1982 to 2012, spring budburst (when the leaves first appear) has advanced by a bit over 10 days, while the onset of autumn in the northeast US has pushed back about 4.5 days. No trends were found for other regions. This lengthening of the growing season has profound implications for the ecology of these forests and potentially their ecological evolution. A longer growing season could translate to high carbon storage for increased growth, but higher rates of decomposition and changes in moisture availability. However, these changes in phenology are primarily driven by increasing temperatures. In a warmer world, some species may simply not be able to survive where they are now, creating a dramatic change in the species composition. And this is without considering changes in precipitation.”

The National Phenology Network’s project called Nature’s Notebook collects data from more than 15,000 naturalists across the nation who, using standardized methods, provide information about plant and animal phenology.

Project BudBurst is another citizen science focused project using observations of phenological events and phases through crowd-sourcing. Project like this give you the opportunity to make your observations of nature more conscious, and to contribute to the knowledge base.

This post first appeared, in slightly different form, on my Endangered New Jersey blog

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.

I try to be observant. I try to pay attention to nature and to what is happening in the sky above. “Observations” and “Celestial Observations” are categories on this site.

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.

bobcat-lynx_rufususda-cc3

Photo: Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

rhododendron_maximumcc4

Photo: © Ben Carter via iNaturalist.org. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) License

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.

axe-chop

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

bird feeding

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.

bamboo_forest_arashiyama_kyoto_oliveheartkimchi

Photo by oliveheartkimchi – originally posted to Flickr as Bamboo forest, Arashiyama, Kyoto, CC BY 2.0

 

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.

 

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