Living in Season
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My Season: The Scent of Spring
Then last year, I read a description of sweet box (also known as sarcococcus humilis), a shrub commonly used as a hedge which has small, almost unnoticeable flowers that give off an intense sweet scent in mid-January.
I had to have one. I found one at my local nursery and planted it beside the front porch of my apartment building. I noticed it had buds last week and yesterday it burst into bloom. The scent is intense-it reminds me of jasmine.
So now I've identified the scent of spring. I regret that a little-some of the mystery is gone-but what a pleasure to walk through that drift of spring fragrance, the promise of many future scented pleasures, whenever I leave my home.
Living in Season: Practice Phenology
Phenologists note and record the date of unique seasonal events: first snow that stays on the ground, ice breaking upon a lake, sightings of migratory birds, the appearance of buds and then blooms on particular plants. Birders have lifetime lists of bird sighted. Phenologists maintain charts showing the dates of the same events, year after year, so they can identify patterns and say things like "the lilacs are blooming two weeks earlier this year."
Gardeners, of course, have been phenologists for centuries, carefully noting dates of first and last frost and that particular moment in early spring when a piece of dirt pried from the ground retains its shape when squeezed in the hand, indicating that the soil is ready for planting.
The trickiest part of being a phenologist is figuring out what's a unique sign of the season. For instance, I have a theory that the squirrels in my neighborhood are more active in autumn but if I simply record the number of squirrels seen per day I might only be capturing the positive effects of temperature or the results of a squirrel population explosion.
Here are some unique markers that phenologists have studied: First leaf, first bloom, ripe berries, first appearance of insects, birds, and frogspawn, and first cutting of lawns. Autumn markers for trees include first tint, full tint, leaf fall and bare. To help people making these observations, phenologists have created specific descriptions of these events, for instance, first leaf is defined as the date when the widest part of the newly emerging leaf has grown beyond the ends of its opening winter bud scales. First bloom (for most flowers) occurs when the petals are open enough so you can see the stamens. Berries are ripe when they are soft to the touch or beginning to drop.
Because of the wealth of natural phenomena, phenologists often focus on a particular place, which reminds me of the first assignment given in most wilderness awareness programs, where you're asked to locate a "secret spot," a place where you can sit quietly in nature for at least 15 minutes a day to watch what unfolds around you.
I've decided to focus on my city block. Since I walk around it at least once a day with Chester the Dog, it will be easy to integrate this practice into my life. I purchased a permanent Book of Days in which I'll record my observations along with the year (for instance, under Jan 17, I'll write blossoms open on sweet box on front porch of apt bldg-2004).
As an easy way to incorporate phenology into your routine, you might simply note observations in your daily planner. It would be fun at the end of the year to find among your appointments, phone numbers and to-do lists, a note that says "ripe berries on the rowan tree."
Phenology has many benefits, besides the simple pleasure of living more closely attuned to the natural world. Phenologists in Great Britain can demonstrate that spring is arriving earlier every year, probably the effect of global warming. This year the first snowdrop bloomed in Goucestershire on Christmas Day. Phenology helps birders, farmers, gardeners and others by correlating natural events. Farmers know to plant peas when the daffodils bloom or corn when the apple blossoms fall. Gregory Scott in his article on phenology, says morel mushroom hunters in north central Wisconsin know when developing oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear, they'll be able to find morels.
"Many of the events of the annual cycle recur year after year in a regular order. A year-to-year record of this order is a record of the rates at which solar energy flows to and through living things. They are the arteries of the land. By tracing their responses to the sun, phenology may eventually shed some light on that ultimate enigma, the land's inner workings."
- Aldo Leopold, A Phenological Record for Sauk and Dane Counties, Wisconsin, 1935-1945 (1947)
On the Web: Phenology Links
From the Library: Enchanted Femiinism
Starhawk's book The Spiral Dance was the first book I ever read on modern witchcraft and I still think it's the best. To Starhawk's credit, despite the power of her writing, she never positioned herself as a spiritual authority, but instead gathered around herself a community (which goes by the name of Reclaiming) to share the teaching and the work.
Although I don't think of myself as part of the Reclaiming Community, I participated in five Reclaiming sponsored Witch Camps in British Columbia between 1988 and 1993. During the second witch camp, I took a "Rituals of the Year" class which was pivotal in reviving my longtime interest in seasonal holidays. But until I read Salomonsen's book I didn't recognize how profoundly Reclaiming's principles have both shaped and reflected my own spiritual beliefs.
For instance, my approach to ritual has always been more anarchic, improvisational and ecstatic than my other pagan friends. Most of the witches I know will sing a song or chant three times. I learned from Reclaiming the value of seemingly interminable repetitions of a chant which leads to intense boredom which often triggers a deep trance. This book also challenged me to examine more thoroughly the origins of my beliefs. Where did I get the idea that all things had souls (certainly not from my Catholic upbringing), a position I remember arguing ardently during lunch at high school while waving around a rock? And what do I really believe about the Goddess. Is She a psychological archetype, an external reality or the divine spirit within?
Jone Salomonsen is a Senior Research Fellow in Theology and Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo who studied and participated in Reclaiming events for over ten years. The book is an interesting mix of the academic (with sentences like this: "When the hidden, transcendent object becomes manifest in the symbol as magical power, the mystical symbol may be said to transform into an indexical sign.") interwoven with personal accounts of rituals (a coming of age for a young girl, a trance at Witch Camp), coven gatherings, an Elements of Magic Class, social events and the handling of a transgression by the community (focusing on Jone who tape-recorded a ritual at Witch Camp without permission).
I vaguely remember this incident which took place during the closing ritual at my second Witch Camp-but my perspective was totally different. We were gathered on the upper lawn for the closing ritual and I got bored with the discussion so I laid down on the grass. The hot sun on my skin and the warmth of the grass beneath my body, combined to evoke an ecstatic feeling of merging with the earth. I really wasn't paying much attention to the people "processing" their feelings around me. The whole book brought back vivid memories and deep appreciation for Witch Camp and the people I met there.
Enchanted Feminism is published as part of the Religion and Gender series by Routledge, a textbook publisher (which means it's expensive) but I got my copy from my local, public library.
For more information about the Reclaiming community, see www.reclaiming.org
Starhawk has written a number of books besides The Spiral Dance, including Dreaming the Dark, Truth or Dare, Webs of Power, plus Circle Round: Raising Children in the Goddess Traditions (with Diane Baker and Anne Hill), The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (with M Macha NightMare) and Twelve Wild Swans (with Hilary Valentine), plus a novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing.
Holiday Packet: Candlemas
- the early spring festivals of Imbolc, St. Bridget, Sementiva, St. Agnes
It is available in an email version for $7 (sent within 24 hours) or via snail mail in a portfolio for $11 (please allow 10 days for delivery). Order now in our Store.
Signs of Spring
Send me your signs of the season and I will post them on the website.