Monday 1 September 2014

Adjusting Phenological Expectations

The leaves on the trees along the Mississippi River where it runs through my neighborhood are just starting to turn. This has prompted a dissonance of expectation that is unprecedented in my experience: I will be spending the northern hemisphere winter in the southern hemisphere this year, so I have the chance to experience the seasonal transition into autumn without the bracing involved in facing cold weather. This has started me down a fascinating path of adjusting all of the expectations that collect around the phenological transitions we notice with the changing of seasons in a particular place, like when the leaves bud and leaf and color and fall.

I have discovered that I appreciate existential preparation for things like seasonal change. Unlike my mother, for example, who (as a schoolteacher by profession) covered her eyes whenever she saw a schoolbus before Labor Day and tried to hold off on acknowledging the coming change of season, I find seasonal changes less jarring if I play with them at least a little bit before they happen. Even welcome changes, like the emergence of leaves, suddenly taking up so much of the experiential space of the sky in the spring, can come with challenging feelings, for example of those leaves pressing in on me in an unaccustomed manner. This transition can be much more interesting and less dissonant if I have anticipated them adequately. This year, for example, with spring so late, I willed the leaves to come out, staring them into sprouting in the side yard with so much effort that when they appeared, it was more as if they were filling a void than taking up space I had been enjoying. I also travelled to places a bit further ahead of us where leaves were concerned, refamiliarizing myself with the feeling of leaves and the changed spatial relationship with trees.

The inverse moment, when the leaves come off again, has a more glorious compensation, but for a much more woeful change: a reduction in aerial spaciousness is a trivial price to pay for the transition out of the six months of freeze; the colorful riot has to be awfully amazing to store up equanimity for return to the cold half of the year. But this year, I am gleeful about the ability to experience some distance between the dying of the summer and the anticipation of cold. But what will this be like? I anticipate that I will learn not only about the many ways I may unconsciously brace for the worst* (and hopefully unlearn some), but also about the way that foreshadowing works in the experience of narrative. This hemispheric transition will also give me a chance to re-explore the relationship between the warm and cold seasons, something that has been creeping up in my priority list, as my recent hip reconstruction has suddenly relocated me, socially, into the set of people who feel seasons in their bones, and as my scholarly work brings me more often into the problem spaces created by less predictable climate regimes.

I have often wanted to stockpile some of the warm experiences of the green land of summer—the space one can move through in bare skin and relaxed limbs—to sustain me in the snowed-in dark months, and I have a picnic project opening tomorrow that is designed, in part, to do just that: to collect and catalogue moments of un-seasonally-encumbered exploration for unpacking in the inside months. Perhaps narrating my way through these picnics will also help me approach this season of preparation in ways that let the seasons talk to each other more in my experience, and that let the reading of phenology always have compensating comforts.
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