Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio beginning at 7:10 a.m. each Sunday morning. His outdoor observations and the phenology notes he collects from a network of observers across Minnesota and western Wisconsin are used for the radio broadcasts and have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977. Jim is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota and has taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.
Phenology is the science of tracking biological and physical events of nature in relationship to weather and climate (weather over time).
Students of nature who keep records to help find order and meaning, and make themselves more aware of the plants and animals that share planet Earth with us, are called phenologists.
Recording notes of the what, when, and where of natural happenings has been key to my over 50-year career as a naturalist and outdoor education teacher. I have been taking notes on the return of birds, dates of flowering wildflowers, ice-out and freeze up dates of lakes, fall leaf color, and I have been doing this seriously since 1967.
I needed a summer job, and got one as a naturalist at the MN Landscape Arboretum. I would take people to the bog, marsh, pond, forests, and restored prairie places. People would ask me so many questions: “When is the peak of fall color?” “When do you expect roses to be at peak?” I wanted to know too, so, I started writing a daily record to keep track.
I started to observe, and then the next year when people would ask me when the peak of fall is, I would tell them what last year was and that it might be the same around this year. I still do this to this day. Phenological observations have provided meaningful information on how a season is progressing and how it compares with past years. Overtime, I started noticing longer term trends based on my years of observations. In short, I know that fall lasts longer, winter is shorter and milder, and springs generally come sooner.
The significance of observations can be hard to notice over one or two seasons, but the trends become very clear over the years.
Now I am 78 years old. I can see these changes. I am a living record. I can say “here is what I saw…” over 10, 20, 30, 40 years. Climate change is measured in 30 year increments and I have lived through two of these timeframes.
My work is not very formal, but it is all written down. Beyond that I know it is also felt in a real and deeply personal way.
I grew up on a lake. We always went skating on Thanksgiving. Now the ponds have not frozen over by then. It has been many, many years since we had this tradition. I now work with the State Climatology office and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and we combine our information to report on ice out/in. The trend is that lakes tend to freeze later and thaw earlier. The fading away of this tradition, among others, makes me feel a deep sense of loss.
We all need to observe, listen, to get outside and lean into our five senses and make meaning of it, for ourselves. As a former science teacher and school district naturalist, I know the challenge of getting students outside to make real connections to what nature is telling us. When you stop and listen to the birds, watch the insects and take time to make sense of it all, it becomes hard to dismiss.
A lot of information on the observations and data are being shared, among a mix of types of people; researchers, educators, phenologists, climatologists, naturalists. Collectively, they undoubtedly make the case for the incredible effects of a changing climate.
We have a lot to derive from observations, to understand our climate and how it has changed over time, but we must also pay close attention to the projections to understand just how rapidly our climate is changing…now and into the future.
Like so many people, for me the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was yet another wake up call on the urgency of what we are facing. The special report on climate change boldly calls for more immediate and aggressive action to address the dire consequences of climate change that are upon us.
At times I admit I have felt somewhat hopeless about it all.
Yet, when you work with students, overtime if you are patient, you get to see what they are doing in the world. It warms my heart to hear that my students are now helping in many ways; as teachers, naturalists, politicians, researchers… and that encourages me to know that they are out there doing good.
Recently, I received a letter from a former student who is now a landscape architect working with the New York City park system, trying to make places for people to discover nature. It began…”Thank you Mr. Gilbert.” She went on to share with me that she was able to realize that her motivation came from our “Friday nature walks” as a class, where we used to observe changes in nature from one week to another. The moment that inspired her was when we spotted the red winged blackbirds. We had stopped and listened in silence as they sang in territory. And though it was something seemingly small, for her it was like a switch that was flipped, a moment of clarity that would remain etched in memory and that she would continue to draw from.
For me, this has been the most rewarding, to share my passion in a way that inspires others to be curious about nature, and to motivate them to protect it.