For the past month, I’ve been focusing on the practice of phenology, with the students enrolled in my Year of Flowers class. Phenology is the practice of tracking seasonal changes in nature. Phenology pretends to be a science, but I think it’s really an art, and an art closely allied to poetry.
Change is always happening in nature, and it happens gradually. But in order to accurately annotate when change occurs, phenologists have to pinpoint the change (called a phenophase) to a particular moment in time. The data must also be attached to a particular place. At Project Budburst, where I am making reports on five plants I have chosen to observe over the year, I must name each location and provide latitude and longitude, plus details of the site where the plant grows (shading, irrigation, habitat, etc.) .)
If you want to see a truly wonderful visual example of this go to Nature’s Calendar, the British phenological site, and click on Maps. Here’s a direct link to the snowdrop map , one of my favorites. When the map is fully loaded, click on the little bar that displays two red arrows at the top of the blank graph and slide it to the right, to watch the snowdrops burst into blossom all over the United Kingdom.
The language of phenology is as delightful as it is precise. For instance, budburst is defined as the date when the widest part of the newly emerging leaf has grown beyond the ends of its opening winter bud scales. Or (at another web site) the date when the protective scale coating is shed from the bud exposing tender new growth tissues of one or more flower buds or leaves. First bloom (for most flowers) occurs when the petals are open enough so you can see the stamens inside. In plants that have catkins or cones, first flower occurs when the plant starts disseminating its yellow pollen. Other markers such as full flower and full leaf are indicated by percentages: full leaf means 90% of all the leaves on the plant are open, while full flower requires less of a show: only 50%.
These measurements help create a standard process that can be easily quantified and thus easily reported but end up omitting the true sensory experience of being with plants, like the crinkled, glossy texture of the dark green leaves of the passion flower unfurling or the spatter of spent maple blossoms on the sidewalk, crunching under foot. So although we come to phenology with a desire to be more attuned to nature, the emphasis on analysis and annotation can sometimes get in the way of truly seeing the world around us.
That’s why I asked the participants in the Year in Flowers class to also look for immeasurables. I was inspired by reading Hannah Hinchman’s book A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place. In this lovely, illustrated book, Hinchman draws maps of the place she lives and sketches the plants she encounters. She makes detailed observations, for instance this about the way different trees extend their seasonal growth:Beech droops. Ash extends symmetrically. Maple makes pagodas. Oak like small mice. Horse-chestnut umbrellas. Pignut hickory like cupped hands.
One of the things Hinchman notices (and records in her journal) while walking around her neighborhood is “kinds of shadows cast on the bottoms of shallow streams by the movement of the water surface, or things floating on it.”
Different students in my class chose different immeasurables, for instance, Nancy is observing spring runoff—she noted the drinking sounds from the trees, with the thickets of aspen demonstrating the most gusto. Anne Marie is tracking seasonal affective disorder. I’m not sure how she’s measuring it but Bill Felker’s whose Poor Will’s Almanack I’ve enjoyed for years (he didn’t create a print version this year but you can check out his blog posts), used to have a system that involved points for cloud cover, weather conditions and number of hours in a day that resulted in a total score. Mary in Texas noted how the morning light streamed from the southeast, striking the table in the dining room. “Sometimes it is so bright we can’t comfortably sit at the table.” Rasma is watching reflections in water. Her observations were like poetry:Feb 16: wind ruffles, fir needle boats, blue blue sky Feb 21: snow clouds and croaking raven wings, pointillist tree back against blue and white; vee-line geese Feb 22: evening shadows with birds heading to roost; purple depths and windblown orange leaves Feb 23: sunny ripples; multiple hues of green, brown, gold against cerulean blue
What immeasurable can you measure?
The lavender in my garden is finally blooming which means it’s time for lavender vodka tonics (recipe found here). I only let myself drink them during the time the lavender blooms because I like them so much. Luckily lavender will bloom far into October.
When I first began my project of writing about the flowers in my neighborhood, three years ago, I set aside the month of July for drinking flowers. I had in mind beverages like linden tea and lavender lemonade but I was also contemplating combining flowers with alcohol, a time-honored tradition.
My interest coincided with a revival of flower spirits. Some of the traditional floral flavored liqueurs, like Creme de Violette and Elderflower cordial, started showing up in fancy cocktails. Then bartenders began creating their own concoctions, infusing herbs and flowers into vodka. The latest trend is artisanal bitters and “today listing house-made bitters on the menu and displaying dozens of homemade tinctures is a benchmark for most serious bar programs,” writes Brad Thomas Parsons in his book Bitters.
So when I heard about a cocktail tasting focusing on drinks from your garden, I signed up. The class was offered by Cicchetti and featured the artistry of Jay Kuehner, bartender from Sambar. Jay calls himself a forager, and is not so much interested in using the commercially produced floral or herbal liquors, as in gathering what’s available in the garden or the neighborhood to make drinks that are perfect for the time and place. He gave us a list of plants he would consider using which included: bay laurel, rosemary, fennel, lavender, angelica, nettles, roses, mint, lemon verbena, lemon balm, thyme, rhubarb, chicory, basil. For this tasting, Jay made four cocktails, each one highlighting a different technique and a different fresh ingredient, and these were paired with delicious small plates prepared by the Cicchetti chef.
Jay’s first offering was a dill-infused aquavit, perfect with a lightly smoked salmon and a goat cheese tart. Infusing is the simplest way to get the flavor of an herb or flower. Tea, for instance, is an infusion. You simply add hot water to the herb and the flavor, color and chemical constituents of the plant are diffused into the liquid.
Alcohol is another excellent way to extract flavor and other chemical constituents from plants. Since it is also a preservative, alcohol infusions can last for a long time. Jay recommended infusing an herb for three days in a cool, dark place to develop the flavors. He used aquavit, a neutral grain spirit, because it provided a blank canvas for the flavor to develop. Vodka is another favorite choice for infusions since it doesn’t have much flavor of its own.
Jay’s second cocktail employed the use of simple syrup. The most common recipe for simple syrup is one to one parts of sugar to water. Then you add your plant materials and let it boil for a few minutes, then take it off the heat and let it cool with the plant material still in it. Strain the plant materials out using a sieve, pressing them to release all the flavorful liquid. You can make simple syrup with any herb or plant. If you don’t drink alcohol you can add the syrup to soda water or combine it with lemonade or freeze it and turn it into a granita or sorbet.
Jay created a rose simple syrup from roses he had gathered that morning. I have also made rose simple syrup and I love it that every rose tastes different. The pale pink and white flimsy rosa rugosas that are blooming right now have an almost earthy (I think bread-like) flavor while the darker, older roses that used to grow in the vacant lot across the street from me had a perfumey quality.
Jay combined the rose simple syrup with muddled cucumber and Hendricks gin (which is distinctive among gins for its more herbaceous qualities including rose and cucumber notes). It was the favorite drink of the cocktail tasters, except for me. I preferred the next drink, probably because it featured one of my favorite floral flavors: lavender.
Jay infused a pisco (Peruvian un-aged grape brandy) with lavender blossoms for only a few hours. The liquor turned a brilliant purple and the lavender flavor was intense. He added a rhubarb compote (rhubarb cooked with water, sugar, lemon and orange), a splash of dry vermouth and some lemon juice, served it in a cocktail glass and garnished it with a curly rhubarb twist. The chef paired it with a lavender crusted pork loin and a fig in a rhubarb sauce. Heavenly.
A compote is made from fruit combined with water and sugar and cooked over heat, in other words, stewed fruit. Once strained, it can be added to a drink as a flavoring.
The final cocktail featured a combination of cachaça (the Brazilian sugar cane spirit), fennel simple syrup and lemon tree leaves, with angostura orange bitters and black pepper. This drink employed crushing aromatic leaves to impart flavor to a drink. Mint juleps use this technique with mint, but Jay mentioned other leaves that could be used, for instance, basil or bay laurel, lemon balm or lemon leaves. Even lavender leaves which he said imparted the same flavor as the flowers. I need to try this.
Our homework assignment for us was to find something within 30 feet of our homes and use that to develop our own signature drink to serve friends on a hot summer day. I send you forth to do the same.
I love planning. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Which is why I spend the whole month of January figuring out my goals for the new year. This year I’ll be doing it along with the students in my online class called New Year Dreams. I’ve been seeing an upswelling of posts on the Internet with great ideas for New Year planning and thought I’d point out a few of them.
There’s the one word approach. Christine Kane is known for this method and proposes a list of good words at her site. (My word isn’t on it though) My friend Christine Valters Paintner has a lovely blog about this one word concept too. My word for 2010 (which I got from Havi Brooks, who got it from Hiro Boga), was Sovereignity.
And if you want some magic spray to go with your word, check out Deborah Weber’s offerings. I just ordered her Sovereignity spray. She has auric sprays for many popular themes, like Trust and Serenity and she can make custom blends as well.
Chris Brogan uses three words which does extend the scope a little, and I like the mind maps that go with them. His words and maps are like little mysteries to me. They wouldn’t motivate me but I like it that they are concepts not qualities. His 3 words for 2010 were Ecosystem, Owners and Kings (which is kind of like Sovereignity).
I’m encouraged that so many people are realizing that having themes is a much more useful way to approach the year than goals, which usually get reduced to something soulless like make $XX,000 money or “lose XX pounds.” A theme helps you get at the longing behind the goal, the divine quality that is wanting to be expressed.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t need metrics. I really love the spreadsheet method of tracking your goals developed by Chris Guillebeau. (Although I do notice that the men on this list approach this process in much more practical way than the more organic approaches of the women. Still both are useful.)
I sometimes have trouble figuring out where to go with my themes and the spreadsheet helps me think of them in terms of concrete goals.
Alicia Forest has aninteresting way of working with themes and goalsthat combines the more rational approach with the organic one. She advises finding a theme for the year and then identifying four goals to accomplish, one per quarter (or season as I would have it). She calls those the four Pillars of the year.
I may integrate this idea with the Natural Planner process I developed to give me a more natural way of moving through the year. It reminds me to review my themes (which are different than goals) every season and acknowledge what I’ve achieved so far. Visual planning methods seem to work better for me these days than the grids and lists I used to love.
I hope you have a favorite planning process, one that fills you with delight. If you do, please share it with me! I’m trying out as many as I can.
Collage made by me was one of my themes for 2012: Presence.
“Living in Season” is for anyone who is weary of the frantic pace of modern life, who wants to slow down, connect with the natural world, and live a life filled with heart and meaning. Each season has its own flavor, captured in the folklore of seasonal holidays, preserved in rituals and recipes, ceremonies and songs.
This quarterly “Living in Season” e-zine helps you connect with the seasons through our articles, online courses (with suggestions on spiritual practices and creative pursuits that match the energy of each season), books and e-books on time management and the seasons. We’re glad you’ve joined us!