Help us make 2008 the Year of Phenology

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” -Aldo Leopold This is my favorite quote from one the most influential Wisconsin conservationists. I will go out on a limb and say that most of you do not own a farm, yet are not in danger of falling victim to these suppositions. Why? Because most of you already have an environmental ethic, and we at the Urban Ecology Center are continually trying to nurture that ethic in our Riverwest community. So what does Aldo Leopold have to do with the title of this article? Dr. Leopold was one of the greatest phenologists of all time. Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events, derived from the Greek Phainomai, which means to appear. Phenologists keep accurate records of when things appear on (and disappear from) a piece of land. When do Mourning Cloak butterflies “appear” from hibernation in the spring? When does the call of the first Spring Peeper frog “appear” in the forest? When do the bright yellow maple leaves “disappear” from their branches? Phenologists also keep record of the occurrence of physical events (When does the river freeze over? When does the forest floor become blanketed with snow?) and behavioral events (When do paper wasps start building their nests? When do snapping turtles emerge from the river to lay eggs?). Leopold’s Sand County Almanac reads like a calendar as he discusses the timing of appearances on his property along the Wisconsin River. Dr. Leopold knew his land well, and that his breakfast and his heat were intricately tied to that land. Today it is frighteningly easy to become disconnected from the land. For many, heat comes from a dial on the thermostat, and food comes from the store. Some have the luxury of supplementing heat with fireplaces and food with a garden plot. Yet there is an easy way to become reconnected with land through phenology. I am asking for your help to create a detailed phenology of Riverside Park and the Milwaukee River for 2008. As you walk along the river banks and you see or hear or smell things let us know. An easy way to do this is to write your observations on the white board at the Urban Ecology Center’s south entrance, or you can e-mail me at . In return, I will make these observations available to you on our website, We can all learn from these observations. Whether it be using biological indicators to track global climate change or knowing when to look for trout lilies in spring. And come March you could go to the grocery and buy maple syrup for your pancake breakfast, but Dr. Leopold might suggest you come to the Urban Ecology Center and learn how to tap maple trees and boil the sap in a wood stove. We would love to show you how.

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