A new series on connecting your life to nature by author and naturalist, Ken Lassman.
Part II: Seasons and Cycles: Using ecological time to reconnect to the planet
It’s January as I write this, which is a good time to explore the difference between the human uses of time and ecological time.
Both the cultural concepts of time that we humans use and ecological time, which all other living beings use are built around the fact that our planet revolves around the sun, taking 365 1⁄4 spins to make one complete trip. Those days and nights that mark each spin of the earth while it revolves around the sun are embedded in a seasonal cycle that emerges from and is based on the amount of light and heat that is available on any given spot on the planet through the year, and it is these local realities that ecological time is built on.
The unfolding of the seasons is so important even to human culture that we go to great lengths to assure that the way we track our time stays in sync with the seasons, and we do that by synchronizing our 86,400 seconds we count for each day with the length of time it takes to go exactly one time around the sun.
As fascinating as calendars and human timekeeping are, the technologies we use mean nothing to the rest of life on our planet.
Furthermore, our cultural practice of ending the year at the end of the day we call December 31 and beginning another year on that next second, which we call January 1, is completely arbitrary. And while many other cultures and religious traditions prove that by picking other spots on the earth’s revolution around the sun to start their new year, NONE of our human calendars mean anything to the rest of life forms that share our planet with us.
But the reasons we have created these human time constructs is that ecological time changes over the year and over large distances, which makes ecological time useless for coordinating with other folks who don’t live where we live on the planet. But what ecological time does do is synchronize what’s going on in a given ecosystem.
How Time Works in Nature
If we want to understand how time works for other species and organisms, we need to understand that plants and animals use their senses to synchronize their activities to the other parts of the ecosystems they depend on for sustenance, shelter, reproduction and the rest. All three kingdoms of life (archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes, which include plants, fungi and animals) are much more attuned to the distribution of heat and light where they live over the course of the year than we are:
- sunrise and sunset are both a time for initiating and finishing a wide number of biologically important activities,
- the changing length of daylight over time triggers a number of biochemical changes in a large number of both plants and animals,
- the darkness of night can be a protective cover for safe resting, predatory and eating activities,
- the phase of the moon is an important synchronizing trigger for predatory, reproductive and migratory activities, and
- the seasonal patterns of heat and moisture that presents itself as the weather are critical for any species to succeed or not in the places they call home.
Each spot on our planet has a unique and dynamic pattern of weather and landforms interacting with the life forms which are present, and we call this pattern the seasons.
Those seasonal patterns are place-specific, making your home’s seasons unlike any other place on the planet. Since those seasons are based on the earth’s revolution around the sun, this means that ecological time is a rhythm based on cycles more than a linear timeline that we humans depict time as being. While each new year is unique, it is also a repetition of the thermal and light cycles provided by the sun, so that each place’s seasons can be described in a circular pattern.
The annual cycles of the seasons in central North America, depicted in Ken Lassman’s 1985 booklet: Seasons and Cycles: Rhythms of Life in the Kansas River Basin, also reproduced in his 2007 book: Wild Douglas County. Part of getting closer to the web of life we are embedded within is to start paying attention to those place-specific cycles again. Each time around the seasonal wheel, the more things you notice, and the deeper you can resonate with those cycles, which turn into a kind of local music that tunes you into the dance of your place.
And there are so many ways to do this.
The Birthday Walk
One of my favorite ways, one that you can do for the rest of your life, is to take a birthday walk. Every birthday, I take a walk to see what my “birthday plants and animals” are up to.
My birthday is in February, so you wouldn’t think that much is going on, but you’d be wrong:
- mosses are typically covered with little blooms of sporophytes, thread-like structures with spore capsules on top like miniature flowers;
- dogwood twigs are beginning to redden with new sap movement,
- elm and maple flower buds are swollen and even can be opened, and a nick on a grapevine can produce a drip of sap;
- winter bird flocks composed of mixed species that have been around the bird feeder are beginning to break up as the days get longer, triggering birds to stake out and defend their nesting territories and
- after dark you can sometimes hear the rustling of leaves caused by earthworms beginning to surface,
- coyotes are howling as it is the midst of their mating season and
- the mud around water shows tracks of many kinds of animals who have stopped to take a drink.
Some years there is snow on the ground, other years the temperature gets into the 60s or 70s, so there is quite a bit of variation on what’s going on.
The Spring Dance
But the sequence of that early spring “dance” remains pretty much the same; an ancient pattern that unfolds anew every year. Nature’s seasons are ordered in a way that is place-specific, and getting to know what those patterns are for your area awakens your awareness to a world that your senses were evolved to pay attention to.
“Phenology” is the scientific term used to describe the seasonal activities of a plant or animal, but it is the interactions between different species that make these things so interesting.
By starting to tune into what the seasonal details are happening in your area, you join in with the other members of your local ecosystem, who are very keenly aware of what’s happening. Bees are very aware of which flowers are blooming, are about to bloom or have finished. Birds, squirrels and other rodents know exactly when a fruit or nut is ripe to harvest or eat. Moths are aware of the phase of the moon so they can fly up into the night sky to catch a whiff of another kindred moth to mate with, bats wait for those nights to pick off moths for food, keeping a watch out for the owls that in turn will eat them.
In addition to your “birthday walks,” you can start to pay attention during other friend/family birthdays, to the big holidays, and so on, filling in your awareness of those patterns of place that take place all year round.
Another way to chronicle your annual seasonal cycle is to start taking pictures of what’s going on, and after a while, you’ll get a clearer and clearer picture of how the sequence unfolds in your area. See if you can get to the point where you can identify what week of what month a picture was taken just by looking at it.
Start building a “seasonal wheel” like I built that reveals what that pattern looks like for your area, and also emphasizes there is no real beginning or end of the year, because there is no beginning or end to the earth going around the sun.
And you can do the same with a nature diary. But here’s a seasonal twist on the annual nature diary idea: instead of keeping an annual nature diary, you can tune into the seasonal cycles more clearly by creating a separate folder for each month, so that each year when March arrives, for example, you add to your dated observations to your March folder, which contains the observations of previous Marches, and so on.
This can be done by having 12 diaries, one for each month, or perhaps more easily, on a computer with a different “folder” for each month. What happens over time is that you begin to rejoin the seasons and cycles of your place. What I’ve found out about this lifelong activity is that even when you travel to new places, you will start looking for those same cycles where you go, and if the cycles are completely different at that new place you are visiting/moving to, you will want to familiarize yourself with how those cycles work, too, because of how it becomes central to your understanding of where you are and even who you are.
Our Bodies and Ecological Time
Our bodies are built to be aware of ecological time, and while we humans will always need our human timekeeping habits, by being aware of the ecological time constantly unfolding around us, we become more fully human as a kindred species with the rest of life on our planet.
And as the changed atmospheric chemistry is changing the weather patterns that help define ecological time, you can help your area better accommodate to those changes if you are aware of what those patterns are in the first place.
An example of a weekly nature guide can be found online at the Kaw Valley Almanac site and in Ken’s book Wild Douglas County, available from that same website.
If you’d like to try your hand at making your own seasonal wheel, Ken recommends going to his friend Anne Forbe’s Partners in Place website.
What ideas do you have to learn more about seasonal cycles and ecological time? Post your comments in the section below…