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"To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven." Ecc. 3:1
O.K., so what on earth is phenology? It's the name given to a whole field of study, that is, the study of timing in nature. We do know something about the importance of timing in human activities like music, sports, and even social interaction. Have you ever heard a beginner band trying to play together? Chances are good that a few will be slightly ahead, or behind, the rest of the band. They may play the right notes, but the timing is off; and the effect grates on the nerves of listeners.
We have been following the effects of timing in nature over recent days as we have watched the slow progress of hurricane Sandy up the East Coast and the approach of a strong cold front apparently on a collision course with one another. The news channels were full of speculations as to what would happen if the timing of each is one thing or if it is something else. Of course, we now know what has happened, but may still wonder what could have been the picture with different timing of, for instance, maximum high tide and storm surge, and location of landfall.
Timing has a great deal to do with both plant and animal population growth or decline.. The study of times of first flowering or leaf budding of plants over a number of years can give us information to suggest whether climate is changing, and whether it is warming or cooling. Also, the time of appearance of insects in Spring can be indicative of climate change. Only if studied over many years, though, are such records useful. Times of leaf fall, and of insect hibernation, can also provide valuable information about how the climate may be changing over the period studied. One year, alone, doesn't tell us much about possible long term climate change. However, records kept for many years by growers of specific crops, such as grapes, have given some evidence of gradual warming in their regions. Combined with records from many parts of the globe, these can provide information about possible worldwide trends.
Meanwhile, I have been concerned about some timing changes I have observed this year and last. As I wrote in an earlier post, last year's monarch migration occurred too late for any eggs laid to hatch and find food for growing to maturity. Additionally, nectar producing flowers were well past prime, most having already gone to seed. This year's migration was only slightly late, but much smaller than in previous years. According to the Monarch Watch website, flowers were beginning to bloom all across the U.S. from two to six weeks early this spring, resulting in milkweed being past prime in many areas when monarchs arrived to lay eggs. Additionally, drought conditions across much of their breeding range and changes in farming practices have further reduced available caterpillar food.
Another timing change I have seen this year occurred in two of the species raised by me, spicebush swallowtail butterflies and luna moths. In both cases, what would normally have been a hibernating brood emerged from chrysalis/cocoon at the beginning of Autumn, too late to produce a new generation; since leaves were already beginning to fall, and those that remained were too old and tough for newly hatched caterpillars. Whether these are isolated events, or indicative of real change, will only be determined by observation in many areas over a long period of time
Something more complex, and therefore more difficult still to study, is what effect one change may have on the many life forms that interact as part of the greater web of interconnected life. For example, if insects decline in number due to a deficiency of the plants on which they feed, will there be a resultant drop in songbird numbers? Or small mammals? What effect would this have on our environment as a whole? And, therefore on us? Tiny changes may produce far-reaching, and devastating, effects. Sadly, human activities inevitably change the environment, sometimes for the worse for creatures we had no intention to harm. Then, too often, one change causes another until, like a snowball rolling down a hill, they grow into a giant sized problem.
Well, this subject has definitely gotten too deep for my old brain! I think I'll leave the final word to the One who knows all the answers. God's word informs and warns in these words: "See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is." Ephesions 5:15-17. So far as it lies in our power, we must all make wise use of the time given to us, trying to understand what the will of the Lord is. We do know that God gave us this Earth to "tend and keep" Genesis 2:15, not to ravage and destroy!