Science

Want to Fight Climate Change? Start by Carefully Watching Your Own Backyard.

Phenology, not to be mistaken with phrenology, is a delightful and challenging way to fight climate change from home.

A large tree with a swing in a back yard.
Thinkstock.

Another summer; another season of foreboding. As temperature records are smashed around the country, feelings of what the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, a climate change–focused vocabulary project, has aptly called “shadowtime” have been killing me this July. Things are generally fine—great, even—here in southeastern Ohio. We swim in lakes, savor the shade under abundant and vigorous foliage, watch fireflies rise from lawns at night. But we also moved our Fourth of July picnic inside because the afternoon temperatures were going to be hot enough to make children and older people sick. We took a tick off my toddler’s scalp, and although it wasn’t one of the dangerous ones, it bothered me for days. How long, these small signs have me thinking, will the good times last?

To slow and mitigate the effects of climate change, we now need to elect leaders who will take comprehensive action, through the passage of policies that will promote renewable energy and limit emissions. Individuals should still try to reduce their carbon footprints, sure, but we’ve gone too far for that to be enough to make a difference on its own. I miss when I could skip a flight, or resolve to eat less meat, and feel a sense that I’d done something to combat the biggest existential threat of our lifetimes—but those days are long gone. This truth is motivating when you have the chance to campaign or vote for the rare American politician, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who both acknowledges the existence of climate change and has a comprehensive plan for combating it. But for the most part, all there is to do is sit, and worry, and check the thermometer, and worry some more.

Fortunately, Mark L. Hineline’s wonderful new book advocates the addition of a new kind of individual action to supplement our political struggle—one that’s both pragmatic and emotionally resonant. Cultivate a practice of local observation of the effects of warming, the historian of science argues in Ground Truth: A Guide to Tracking Climate Change at Home. Start keeping journals that record when plants flower in spring, when that fox comes to your yard, and when the maple drops its leaves. In so doing, you can anchor yourself in place and be a witness to the way nature is actually responding to change, instead of dwelling on the disasters that might come.

“My presentness, and yours, releases us temporarily from the incessant, and often noisy, directionality of climate change,” Hineline writes in one of many lyrical passages describing the way scientific observation of nature can alter your state of mind. “An observation must have about it the characteristics of the here and now. It cannot be speculative, reaching somehow for the future, for that would taint both the process and the outcome.”

“Phenology” is not a word that was familiar to me, but it means the study of plants and animals’ seasonal life cycles—records of which, if carefully kept, can show how those plants and animals respond to variations in the conditions of their habitat. There are famous people in American history who practiced phenology—Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson—but as Hineline points out, we are more likely to have a mental picture of Jefferson wandering the gardens of Monticello with a notebook than we are to know the word that describes what he was doing. “Today, search engines may return searches for ‘phenology’ with the annoying question ‘did you mean phrenology?’ I never mean ‘phrenology,’ ” Hineline writes puckishly. (Phrenology is the “study” of the shape and size of the cranium as an indication of mental ability; it was also popular in the 19th century. It is pseudoscience.)

Scientists can use individuals’ phenological records, if they’re kept with the correct metadata and maintained over a series of years, to assess climate change. A good example of this is the research that uses Thoreau’s records, kept in the 1850s of first flowering dates for hundreds of species of local wildflowers, to track the effects of a changing climate on Massachusetts’ plants. Hineline argues that as climate change proceeds, and the uncertain effects of warming unfold, scientists will find the phenological records kept by us civilians to be more and more useful. “Individual observations of phenophases, even if they are of a single species, when aggregated with the reports of other observers, provide the facts that drive theoretical understanding and make modeling and prediction possible,” Hineline writes. Keeping them, then, isn’t just for us—it could mean something bigger.

But it is also for us. This whole idea of phenology appeals to me tremendously. I tend to turn to record-keeping to help me feel better about any daunting and uncontrollable situation: budgeting expenses; feeding a newborn; treating insomnia caused by expenses and a newborn. Write stuff down? I can do that!

Or so I thought. The University of Chicago Press’ promotional material for the book recommends an exercise that sounds somewhat simple on its surface:

Before you read this book, you have homework to do. Grab a notebook, go outside, and find a nearby patch of nature. What do you see, hear, feel, and smell? Are there bugs, birds, squirrels, deer, lizards, frogs, or fish, and what are they doing? What plants are in the vicinity, and in what ways are they growing? What shape are the rocks, what texture is the dirt, and what color are the bodies of water? Does the air feel hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or still? Everything you notice, write it all down.

I did this, and it turns out I don’t know the names of almost anything in my immediate neighborhood—what Hineline calls, in a charming New England­ism, my “dooryard.” There are turkey vultures and redbuds and deer, but what kind of deer—and are redbuds oaks or maples? (They are neither.) There are squirrels, but what kind? That doesn’t even touch the hundreds of species of nameless plants that populate the tangled banks that line the street between houses. I have a bad case of what I now know, thanks to this book, is called “plant blindness.

All of which is to say becoming an everyday phenologist can be a commitment. Hineline has many recommendations of guides and websites you can use to get started. In some ways, realizing my deep lack of knowledge of what’s in the natural world around me makes me more motivated, rather than less, to start. Part of my nameless unease exists because my sense of what’s “normal” for this area is so incredibly vague. Didn’t those purple flowers (not asters … hmm) on the side of the road come out in August, not July, last year? Weren’t there more of those loud frogs in the pond in 2016? If I had names and records, at least I’d have that.

“It seems as though it might feel morally wrong to describe cumulus clouds or count fireflies when whole nations pass below sea level,” writes Hineline. But, he argues, it is possible for us to endeavor to do both. We can mourn and organize around climate change, and we can also track its effects on the places we live. After all, “climate change is a bad turn of events in human history, but climatic changes to nature are just nature, neither good nor bad but outside human morality altogether,” he points out. “Rage and take action against the former, pay attention to and marvel at the latter.” After reading this book, I’m on it.