Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A Swift Journey: Inspiring Phenology in Children

Definition of Phenology: The cyclic and seasonal changes of natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant & animal life.

Beautiful Autumn blusters have been whipping and whistling around the north east for the past week, and this evening another telling sign of summer's end has made itself notably clear to me; the imminent absence of one of the more endearing soundtracks to our British summer. Since their return to Britain earlier this year screams of Swifts have been welcoming me home from dawn bat surveys, and wishing me well on nocturnal wildlife escapades. Now, the unmistakable calls of this estate's breeding population of Swifts has rung silent.
And just like that, as though the Autumn winds themselves have gently whisked these summer migrants along their southern route, the dominant audible summer phenology of this estate has ended. I wonder what audible phenology Autumn will bring to this part of suburbia? The rustling and crunching of crisp leaves? The travelling calls of young Tawny Owls vocalising the boundaries of their new territories?

Perhaps the clunking of falling Conkers will be the next sound?

With every crisping deciduous leaf swaying in the morning's Autumn breeze, I get a yearning for all other telling signs of the auburn season to storm my senses. I look forward to the phenological encroachment of Autumn each year, since my early childhood; from the first time my mum and I first kicked up the huge piles of temptingly crisp leaves that the Burn Valley park attendee had so neatly 'tidied'. Swirling Autumn gusts would whip up and take hold of each leaf, as though the essence of Autumn itself became entwined once more in a dedicatory dance of its antecedent; Summer. Dancing leaves would trap us both in a moment of Autumn at it's purest; our senses, gratefully invaded. Beams of golden light from the low sun would break through flickering shades of amber, hazel, cinnamon and fawn; a visual display to the uprising redolence of damp bark and earth. An enrapturing swarm of rustles; a sound, to me, with a whispered affinity to the sea's flow over pebbles on the shore. As an adult, each rustle of a leaf, every scent of damp earth, takes me back to childhood moments of escapism such as this. As natural surroundings adapt phenologically, so do we.

I still adore being amongst fallen leaves

Now, before I become labelled as a 'bunny cuddler' (which, by the way, isn't as cuddly as you'd think...), behavioural reactions to seasonal shifts isn't a new-age philosophy. It's science. To be more precise, it's neuroethology; the study of behavioural reflexes which certain external stimuli can induce within us.
Have you ever come across the same scent of someone you love, and had the same surge of emotions that being with them can cause? Have you ever smelt a particular food, which you ate throughout your childhood, and it made you reflect on memories of your childhood home? This 'olfactory (scent) memory' is caused by 'neuromodulation'; a smart tool within us which connects the scents we receive with the emotions we're feeling at the time of smelling them. Neuromodulation exists within mammals (yes, including us!) and is an evolutionary tool we've so cleverly maintained to help us survive. Many of us may notice behavioural, physiological and emotional changes within ourselves as the seasons shift; our very own phenological changes which are cyclical, repeated and strengthened each year.

So how important is it, that we understand phenology in children? Emotionality in children is considerably higher than it is in adults; meaning that the emotional memories which children create often last throughout adulthood. Olfaction is the strongest medium for the emotional retainment of memories; and has allowed the autumnal scents of damp earth and dusty leaves to take me back to the freedom of kicking up leaves with my mum.

My sister, Hazel, and I acting like children again with a huge pile of Conkers last year 

Living in a society with an a linear, "go forth and don't look back", outlook is problematic. Children may grow older in a linear fashion, (I am yet to see a real life Benjamin Button), but their cyclical phenology is recycled year after year, and embedded into their behaviours into late adulthood. Two things which children yearn for are; stability, and to feel that they understand the world. Encouraging children to look closely and discover the seasonal changes that are taking place in the natural world surrounding them is a sure way to fulfill those desires. Nature is the only feature in this world which will always have some involvement in all our lives; it offers a promise of stability, understanding and connection. Just as we rely upon phenological natural phenomena, it relies on us; if the majority of us do not acknowledge seasonal changes such as the screams of swifts, how will we know if they disappear? I was disappointed to realise that not once this year have I spotted anyone living in this estate stopping to acknowledge the beguiling sights and sounds of the Swifts, which share the buildings of our own homes: not even the children.

I'd love you to share any seasonal changes which stir your emotions, and how they take you back to any childhood memories.

After all, to understand the phenology of Nature in the places we live, is to understand ourselves. 

- Heather-Louise


  1. I must admit that when I saw the title I didn't think it was going to interest me, however as I started reading you got me hooked. I am a blogger and wish I could paint pictures with words as you do, a well written piece. I enjoyed it.

    1. Thank you for your compliments on my writing Stewart - I'm new to this so it's always good to hear how my style is received. I'll be sure to check out your blog!

  2. This is EXACTLY the perspective we need to be taking on Why Phenology. Sure, climate change. Sure, science. But if we're not focused on what it means at a personal level, then we're missing the whole boat. Thank you for this post and I would love to collaborate in some of these directions. (You can find me at @living_almanac)

    1. I completely agree with you that we need to reach through to people on a personal level if we are to influence how people perceive nature & conservation - I'm really pleased you thought my post tapped into this a bit, so thank you. I'll give you a follow on Twitter and perhaps we can find a way to collaborate.