Taking the pulse of our planet: Thoreau as a Climatologist
Although the 19th-century American poet and transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, only published two books in his short lifetime – A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden – he managed to write 47 volumes of handwritten journals. Each is jam-packed with his daily observations of weather, plants and animal life in and around Concord, Massachusetts and the world-famous Walden Pond.
These aren’t just personal anecdotes – they are the scientific reports of a naturalist who understood the importance of getting close to nature, and paying attention to details. Everything was included - from a bird’s singing its first songs of spring, to pollen being shed, to a lone turtle digging a nest - a hole - to hide her eggs.
The journals are gradually being made available for downloading by The Thoreau Edition project, founded in 1966 at the University of California Santa Barbara to create a scholarly edition of his writing. The project is housed in the Davidson Library, as researchers work hard to decipher “miserable” handwriting and bad spelling. But the efforts have unearthed a wealth of knowledge – and give us real insight into Thoreau’s life, and the world around him.
An observer, a scientist, and somewhat unemotional – this is not poetry! Here Thoreau is thoroughly observant, noting times and dates and pollen and leafing; cold weather, rainy weather, Easterly storms for days on end, great frosts in May, and the ‘tchip-tchip’ of a “chest sided warbler with clear yellow brown & yellow on wings & chestnut sides… exploring low trees and bushes often along stems about young leaves.”
Analyzed with modern tools
The temptation to catalogue and analyze this mass of details is obvious. Today we face a world of climate change that Thoreau could have never imagined, caused by carbon emissions from the industrial age that was already beginning to transform rural New England.
To help determine the impact of climate change on biodiversity, researchers Charles Davis of Harvard University and Richard Primack of Boston University turned to Thoreau’s notes, and analyzed them with modern tools. They discovered that flowering now is beginning as much as three weeks earlier than in 1850, and that the annual mean temperature increase of 2.4ºC/4.3ºF is apparently enough to unbalance natives like lilacs, violets and dogwoods – causing local extinction of some 27% of the species recorded by Thoreau.
Taking the pulse of our planet
Every one of us can be a naturalist like Thoreau – and we won’t have to wait 150 years for our observations to serve science and humanity. Since 2007, the National Phenology Network (NPN) has been collecting information from people of all ages from around the country. First with pen and paper – now online, thanks to cooperation from YourGardenShow.com.
And it’s going to get even easier. In Spring 2011, YourGardenShow.com will feature an online NPN nature warden station, and introduce a mobile application for collecting data while on the go. Anyone can contribute – and everyone should! Then each of us, in our own town or city, can make a real difference in the struggle to get governments to recognize (and take action on) climate change.
Nature doesn’t lie
The truth about climate change is being revealed by data gathered by scientists, and concerned citizens. And nature doesn’t lie. So we encourage you to take note of the plants and animals that you see every day, and share this information with NPN. Because, just as Thoreau realized, the nature that surrounds us is filled with information and meaning – if only we take the time to be silent and observe.
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