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Lange: Learning Natural Patterns

04/30/10 5:55PM By Kerstin Lange
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(HOST) Every spring, commentator Kerstin Lange is reminded of an encounter she had in the woods many years ago that set in motion a whole new web of discoveries. 

(LANGE) It was a small bird, no more than 6 inches tall and sitting high up in a tree top. 

With its eye-popping red-and-black plumage, identifying the bird as a scarlet tanager was not difficult.  But in the process, my previous catch-all mental category for birds became painfully insufficient. Now I had to know what other birds were out there -- What was that tiny yellow streak over there?  What about that majestic-looking creature scanning the surface of the pond for movement from its perch on a dead tree? 

From then on, getting to know the birds gave me a whole new way of discovering trees - not only as individuals, but as "the woods" - and not just generic woods, but natural communities of particular plants, soil conditions, and topography where birds and other animals don't just appear randomly.   One aha-moment was that wherever I could hear the song of the hermit thrush, I could also count on smelling the scent of balsam firs.

Another discovery I have the scarlet tanager to thank for is the kind of flower show many trees put on in spring.  Botanically speaking, the flower that really opened my eyes to this phenomenon turned out not to be a flower at all -- but it might as well count as an honorary one, with its pastel tones of orange and cream and its petals elegantly curved back, reminiscent of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting.  It belonged to an enormous shagbark hickory, and the supposed flower was actually made up of the bud scales that unfurl with the hickory's new leaves.   

Flower or bud - from that day on, I looked much more closely at both on my walks in the woods and around the neighborhood.  Noticing these details on the various species of maple became an exhilarating spring hobby, and I had to be quick about it - the flowers on some trees only last a few days. 

Beyond the fun of getting to know the trees better by their flowers, this new hobby tuned me in to patterns in time - the flowering period of sugar maples compared to red maples compared to boxelders, and to shifts in when the first flowers appear from one year to the next.

But these kinds of observations have meaning beyond the personal.  Records kept by observers across the country show that the first flowering of lilac now occurs an average of 5 days earlier than it did in 1955.  Think of the fact that at least one-third of the world's agricultural crops depends on pollination by insects or other animals. Considering how closely events in the natural calendar are intertwined, we should pay attention to such changes.

To notice these kinds of things about trees and birds - to transition from knowing the pieces of the natural world to noticing patterns - takes time; just as getting to know people does.  As a reward, both open up never-ending worlds of learning and wonder. 


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