Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Review: Sundial of the Seasons

Title: Sundial of the Seasons


Author: Hal Borland

Date: 1964

Publisher: Lippincott

ISBN: none

Length: 344 pages

Quote: “[F]rom that first outdoor editorial have grown more than a third of a million words about wind and weather, time and the seasons, man and his natural environment. In this volume I have chosen 365 out of a total of close to 1,200 of those pieces.”

This, then, is a selection of phenology posts. As a book its purpose is not strictly phenological, although an index on pages 345-350 does allow readers to chart weather patterns to some extent. The short articles reprinted here skip about: “March 21, 1954; March 22, 1959; March 23, 1952; March 26, 1961; March 27, 1960,” and so on. The purpose of the book is more generally to communicate a sense of respect for Nature. “[B]irds and trees and insects still outnumber people…It is obvious…that man and all his works…do not constitute the whole of life or the greater part of activity upon this earth.”

Within an historical context, however, Borland’s observations do serve the ultimate purpose of phenology—to determine when, whether, if at all, real “global climate change” has taken place. In my teen years, a few record cold winters, back to back, had put the fear of a Second Ice Age into many of us. “The children had to miss a whole month of school due to snow,” people were saying more recently. “That’s not global warming.” No, but neither is it global cooling, which was what we worried about during the months of school we missed due to snow in 1977 and 1978. Far from imagining that Asheville was about to displace Miami as North America’s southeast beach town, we feared that Asheville might be about to displace Thunder Bay as its northeast frontier…

Borland documents that this has not happened. Instead, “once Spring starts moving north it travels at…approximately seventeen miles a day…for places of approximately the same altitude above sea level. another scale of calculation comes into effect whne you come to a ridge of hills…Spring…climbs only 100 feet of altitude in a day. Spring may creep intoa  valley with green grass and violets ona Sunday morning and not reach the top of a  200-foot hill bordering that valley until Tuesday noon.”

Allowing for the effects of latitude and altitude, the predictable weather events of the 1950s occurred on about the same schedule phenology bloggers document them occurring now. No two years’ weather will ever be exactly alike. There are colder and warmer seasons, wetter and drier seasons. One year a certain flower blooms as early as March; another year it waits until July; normally it blooms in May, and if we walk far enough to find them we probably see other flowers of its kind blooming in May, even when that particular flower bloomed later or earlier. Borland, in the Berkshires, considers it normal to see willow catkins on the tenth of April; I, in the Blue Ridge, usually see a few willow catkins in the third or fourth week of March.

There are also differences in what can be observed on different walks. Some flowers, and the birds and butterflies they attract, thrive on full sunlight; some prefer more shade. Some thrive in wet years, some in dry years. Some coexist for years with mown grass, some do not. Changes in humans’ and animals’ behavior may trigger changes in flowers’, birds’, and butterflies’ behavior: where there is more smoke (including motor exhaust fumes) closer to the ground, there are fewer insects, since insects don’t enjoy flying through smoke, and there will soon be more of some flowers and fewer of others, depending on what the insects ate and/or pollinated.

So, some of the creatures Borland observes are familiar to me, to Pamela Dean, to Naomi, and to other bloggers in various parts of North America. Some are not.

I’m particularly bemused by Borland's claim that the Black Duck is “the common duck of New England.” It is uncommon in the South. It is a threatened species, perennially threatened, because it does not suspect that humans want to think of it as a separate species. It rather obviously thinks of itself as basically the same sort of bird as our common wild duck, the Mallard. It is usually smaller, thinner, darker of coat and brighter of foot than a Mallard, and makes a slightly different noise…All the Black Ducks I have met were travelling with Mallards. Black Ducks are continually threatening to breed themselves back into the Mallard gene pool. They can mate with teals, too, and even with wide-billed Shovellers, if they really try. Sometimes they do; ducks have no noticeable sense of "race."


If you enjoy phenology blogs you’ll probably enjoy Sundial of the Seasons, despite its unscientific format. It is going into the collector price range. To buy it here, send $10 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the bottom of the screen. (You could add one to three more books of similar size to the package.)