Sunday, March 24, 2013

Phenology and the Brutish Clan

First of Year Eastern Phoebe - 2013. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

For many years a field that I've really enjoyed, though strictly on an amateur basis, is phenology - the timing of natural events. The pencil and watercolor sketch of our first of 2013 Eastern Phoebe above illustrates this.

It's not just pleasurable to see the first Eastern Phoebe of spring it's also enjoyable and comforting in a way to see that the world still operates in more or less the same manner. There is a continuity and consistency in nature from season to season and year to year. The Eastern Phoebe, outside of members of the blackbird family, will be among the first migrants to arrive in our area each year.

And generally it will be on a cold, gray day, one not very promising of the warmer weather of spring. But once you see a phoebe you know that spring really is on its way. And another change of seasons is evident.

For those who pay attention to nature this is something to be celebrated and enjoyed.

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article on phenology. It mentioned all the volunteers that took note of changes in nature, particularly in regard to flower bloom, and recorded this. The article then went on to say that much of this data would be helpful in regard to the study of climate change. It is another form of citizen science, just like ebird and Project Feeder Watch from Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (By the way the link to the WSJ may not work as it may require a subscription to access.)

The gist of the article was primarily scientific. People were interested in nature, in phenology, and perhaps as well in climate change. But it wasn't an a priori part of the study, done solely to prove that human activity is destroying nature.

But you'd never know that to read the comments. I know better than to read comments on the page of any newspaper site. As someone who spent over 25 years in the newspaper industry I find this incredibly sad. The comments almost invariably bring the conversation down to the lowest possible level. It would be an insult to Troglodytes to call most commenters Troglodytes. They don't even reach the level of a society or culture. Finally I decided that what best described them was the 'brutish clan' of the title of this post.

If it were me I'd banish them from all newspaper sites. I assume that they do get some viewers, in fact quite a few if you count the number of comments, but their level of stupidity and hate always makes me give up on them within minutes. Occasionally there will be a thoughtful comment but it's immediately lost in the rabid responses. Who knows how the people who make the thoughtful comments have the patience and stamina to post? I've read newspapers and others who defend the practice of allowing these comments. But I have to disagree.

In any case when I last looked there wasn't a single intelligent comment on the phenology article - just rants on government spending, tree huggers, climate change conspiracies etc. As I said it is a brutish clan.

But that doesn't lessen the value and appeal of it. We are all a part of nature and we're all affected  by it, farmers, people affected by hurricanes and tornadoes, fishermen who look to the bloom of shadbush trees for running of the shad or appearance of trout. If I feel sick from tree allergies I know it's time for my taxes to be filed.

I like the idea of illustrating natural events. So that's why I did the Eastern Phoebe sketch. We also saw a couple of Great Blue Herons at Morris Arboretum yesterday. I'd been reading about people seeing large numbers of them in flight in Pennsylvania this week. They must be migrating and I assume that the two we saw were migrants.

The sketch is based on photos of the Eastern Phoebe as well as sketches of one of the Great Blue Herons. It's done on Stillman and Birn Gamma paper, a lighter weight than that of the Delta sketchbook I've used in last two posts. As I said in recent posts I like all of the S&B sketchbooks for working out ideas. So in this one I tested a composition that combined the phoebe and heron. They never appeared like this in reality.

Since the paper was lighter and the subject, the phoebe, a bit more delicate I decided to use pen and watercolor rather than the Neocolors. When I use them I tend to work and wet the paper more heavily and I think it would have been too much for the Gamma paper. But for what I did it was fine. The paper does warp a bit but I always put a rubber band around the lower edge when I'm done. That and being flattened by the weight of the closed sketchbook once it dries help to flatten it back out.

I've done a number of first of year phoebe drawings and paintings. This is by far the one I'm happiest with.


Ellen Snyder said...

Hi Ken,

So hopeful knowing that a phoebe has returned to your area. We await spring and the phoebes to our yard. It still looks and feels so much like winter. But when the phoebe returns to nest under our deck I will rejoice.

Thanks for the hint of spring.


Ken Januski said...

Hi Ellen,

It is snowing here today and my guess is that it will also make it up your way. But yesterday I saw three more phoebes in another part of Philadelphia. So they are here and will soon be up to NH.

I'd be very happy to have some nesting in our backyard!

I just thinned my first home grown seedlings yesterday - another sign of spring being on the way. Still no signs of the peas I planted a few weeks ago coming up though. One of these days.

Ellen Snyder said...

Hi Ken,

Wow -- you've planted peas already. We can barely see our garden with all the snow. New Roots Farm, a nearby organic farm where I help and grow my seedlings, has barely started seeding because of the late winter. I've yet to touch any soil....


Ken Januski said...

Hi Ellen,

Well I've PLANTED peas already but that doesn't mean I was smart in doing so! When I first started growing here many years ago the saying was that you planted on St. Patrick's Day. I often did that but wouldn't see peas for three weeks or so. And sometimes they'd just rot from cold and damp.

I haven't grown them in at least five years because they tied up the soil for too long when I'd rather be growing something else. So this year I decided to try again but plant a week or so early and hope for the best. It's sort of an experiment and gamble. I'm hoping that they'll sprout early and be done early. On the other hand they all may just rot, especially if it's a cold damp spring.

Philadelphia really does have a short winter. I've found that if I start my seedlings in March that I often won't get tomatoes until August or later. When I used to plant them in Jan. or Feb. we'd get tomatoes in July. So this year I got an early start and planted in February. I'm pretty confident that this will be safe. With the peas I'm not so sure though! I may have jumped the gun.

Though there are things I don't like about Philadelphia the early spring is one that I surely do like.