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Down on the Farm: Spring things

Phenology. It is the current big word. I heard it for the first time and learned what it meant this spring, and have noticed the word used several times since.

Don't confuse phenology with phrenology, the 19th century science of foretelling a person's future by feeling the bumps on their skull.

Phenology is something different. It is scientific, but straightforward. To put it simply, phenology is the year-to-year observation and study of when spring happens.

When do the oak leaves emerge? When do the tulips bloom? When do the ducklings hatch? When did the orioles return?

Thomas Jefferson and countless others through the centuries have kept diaries which recorded such information.

To modern scientists attempting to discern how the climate has changed over the centuries, those diaries are valuable.

In the more historically documented cultures of China and Japan, botanists have records of nature's happenings that reach back thousands of years.

On what day did the cherries bloom in the year 843? Believe it or not, in Tokyo they know.

The current phenology fad, which has manifested itself in spring-time phenology tours around the area, might be politically motivated, I suppose.

Most phenology fanatics I have met resemble the self-righteous hippy tree-hugging types who get into this global warming stuff just so they can take away our Escalades and make us take trains to the Twins game.

Radicals, that's what they are. Bitter, angry, anti-capitalist radicals who use this global warming nonsense to ruin our six-mile-per-gallon fun, otherwise known as the "American way of life."

But phenology is practiced by real Americans as well.

Like myself.

This March 4, the swans circled the frozen pond out front and landed for the first time this year, if only for a few minutes.

Their arrival was a full 11 days before they landed last year, and nine days before they landed the year before.

I wondered if we would have an early spring.

Sure enough, those swans were smart. Spring has been early this year. In fact, it has been about 10 days earlier than last year, even if you include the cool, rainy spell in early May.

Maybe there is something to this phenology.

I just realized that without realizing it, I have used phenology in my work for decades.

I have noticed that the peak demand for flowers from the greenhouse always--I mean always--occurs when the flowering crabapple trees are in full bloom.

So, it seems that humans are tied to phenology, too.

In high school, you knew spring was here when the squirt gun craze hit. An annual crisis for administrators, bus drivers and teachers, squirt gun week made even Honor Society students act like future felons.

Was it the phase of the moon? The average daily temperature?

Folklore is full of phenology.

"Knee-high by the 4th of July," is the key to a good corn crop around here.

I don't know if it is phenologically correct, but according to my observations, the orioles return about five minutes after I put out grape jelly.

How did they know I had just put out jelly? Where were they before?

Phenology is an amazing thing.

The first frog croak is another phenological milestone. It usually happens in April. The first few nights of frog croaking are deafening. After a while you get used to it to the point where if they stopped, it would be difficult to sleep.

So, I have become a convert to phenology. What else but phenology could explain why the scent of blooming lilacs causes me to hanker for cake, ham sandwiches and graduation-reception punch?