Getting Lost in Day Length

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 16) by Jack Phillips

It’s easy to get turned around in deep ravines, beyond going up or going deeper. Sense of place and of time fades in that magic space of getting lost. When we finally climbed up a ridge and over another, then another to find our way back to the cabin, the unusually hot February sun had baked me in my flannel. Sitting down to rest, I opened a book of 12th-century poetry by Saigyō Hōshi and read:

I’ll forget the trail

I marked out on Mount Yoshino

last year,

go searching for blossoms

in directions I’ve never been before.

We know well those ravines and ridgetops we frequently survey and saunter, but like Saigyō we often lose our way. When we do, it is because we have become enraptured by something secret and wild, or have seen something familiar in an unfamiliar light. Losing ourselves in nature is easy traversing ridgetops and ravines where the land folds in on itself, expanding and collapsing with every footstep. Every particle and every creature and the even the quality of light changes every moment, and find we ourselves in a new world when we pay attention.

Nature is always in process, and the timing of natural processes is called phenology. That is, the timing of processes like birth and death, reproduction and aging, migration and dormancy. Phenology is the way biology navigates time, and is related to the journey of the earth around the sun and the rotation of the earth in the daily round. Length of days and nights provide the primary cues, and temperature is also a factor. Warm days in winter can move phenology up a week or two, and trick a few plants and animals into spring behaviors when the days are still too short.


Flowers of slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) in late February, Fremont County, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

The combination of day length and temperature usually keeps phenological variation from getting too extreme, but lately the little wrinkles in time seem more like warps and wormholes. On our hot February saunter, we saw early butterflies a month too early, hazels in bloom out of season, and some slippery elms in full-on April flower. Like the poet and the naturalist, nature sometimes loses her well-marked way. Then it snowed that night.

The next morning the wilted blossoms of slippery elms made rubies on the snow. A fox led our saunter with her fresh tracks as we followed her along a ridge top and through an oak savanna. She had marked her trail with urine and here and there with blood; she was in heat and in season, right on cue. In a few weeks we will lose ourselves in the woods again, when the elms are red with new blossoms, and the days are longer and the time is right.

March Workshops and Saunters: click here.