Has Spring Sprung Early?

categories: Cocktail Hour


This morning the newborn Carolina wrens are busy begging for food.  A hundred feet in front of me a mute swan has built a much larger nest. Meanwhile last week I heard (but did not see) a painted bunting, a bird aflame with color that has come back from points south far too early.

“Phenology,” writes Jack Turner, “is the study of the mature naturalist.” And what is phenology? The discipline of watching phenomena change as the seasons turn. I remember my personal highlight as a phenologist. It was fall and we were living on the beach on Cape Cod, and after a walk I said to my wife, “The seals should be back soon.” Each summer “our” seals migrated to the cooler waters of the Gulf of Maine, and each fall they migrated back.

The next day, walking again, I saw that the seals were indeed back, loafing on the offshore rocks. I couldn’t have been more thrilled by a promotion at work — and in a way, that’s just what it was.

Phenology has always been a private science, a way of getting your own clock in synch with the world’s, and so far there have not been any Nobel Prizes awarded for knowing when the seals will be back. But that may be changing. It has been reported that the notes made in the journal of the granddaddy of phenology, Henry David Thoreau, are finding a whole new relevance.

It turns out that the meticulous phenological notes that Henry made in his journal are now being used to confirm what anyone who has lived through this non-winter already knows: spring is springing much too early.  Recently, Richard Primack, a professor of biology at Boston University, and Abe Miller-Rushing, who was his grad student at the time, took notes on the same species that Thoreau had observed beginning in 1851 and concluded that nature’s timing has changed for the earlier.

How wonderful that Henry’s private notes should play this public role. I think of one of his own favorite metaphors, one he employs on the last page of Walden, that of the “strong and beautiful bug,” which emerged after lying dormant inside of a farmer’s wooden table for sixty years, after having been deposited in the living tree “many years earlier still.” Thoreau concludes: “Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this?”

What thrills him is that something — insect or idea — can sleep for decades before springing back into “beautiful and winged life.” And now his journals are doing the same thing, speaking to us a hundred and fifty years after he spoke to them. It’s true the news they tell is bad, but I can’t help but find the fact that they can speak to us at all is hopeful.

Who would have guessed? Noticing, it turns out, can be valuable.




  1. Tommy writes:

    I love global warming! Just as long as it’s not 10 degrees warmer in July! This temperature thing is tricky. How do we know we’re not part of a larger space time continuum, and that we’re still gradually warming from the ice age that wreaked (wrecked?) havoc on vacation plans (that didn’t involved cross-continent migration) for tens of thousands years, leaving stunning geography in its wake? The image of all those giant lizards (millions (?) of years before – if you have the strength not to fully believe what your religion claims is the true origin of life) stomping around gives me the vision of a hot, steamy, steamy environment. And what about fossils of fish found deep in the desert? All indicate the possiblility of past catastrophic climate change. So, what is normal?

  2. Rick Van Noy writes:

    Thoreau also recorded the ice-out dates, which compared to today, show a pattern of warming. From A Natural Sense of Wonder (also a Reed Award wiinner):

    We read of the scientific evidence, but there is also evidence of climate change in our history and literature. When Thoreau mapped the pond in winter, he measured sixteen inches of thick ice. A meticulous note taker, he also recorded the dates when the pond would thaw in spring. The average date for the ice to thaw, the ice-out date, between 1845 and 1854 was March 31. Some students from a group called Journey North have continued the tradition. Between 1995 and 2005 the average date on the same pond was March 13, eighteen days earlier. In 2006, the ice never came in.

    Conservation botanists such as Richard Primack are comparing what is left today to what naturalists such as Thoreau wrote about. “Of the more than 20 species of orchids seen in Concord by Thoreau in the 1850s, for example, only 4 remain today.” Plants now flower about three weeks earlier than they did in Thoreau’s time. Trees leaf out earlier in the spring and shed leaves later in the fall. Season creep, they call it, and it’s creepy alright. Baltimore Orioles may have to move to Buffalo.