Phenology and Me

Sara Spike, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton

I first encountered A. H. MacKay’s remarkable crowd-sourced phenology project in 2007, while doing archival research for my master’s thesis on an early itinerant school photographer. Among the papers of rural schools collected by the Nova Scotia Archives and historical societies across central Nova Scotia, I occasionally found completed phenology schedules, either loose pages that never made their way to MacKay, or duplicate versions printed into the back pages of the yearly school registers that stayed in the schools.

Local Nature Observations in teacher C. M. Erskine’s school register, Lower Lakeville, Halifax County, 1905. Eastern Shore Archives, school register collection.

Those schedules were the genesis of my doctoral dissertation, although I didn’t know it then. Focused on histories of photography and visual culture during my MA, I was reading Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer and Suspensions of Perception and thinking about the disciplining of vision and the formation of the modern observer. After reading Lianne McTavish’s “Learning to See in New Brunswick, 1862–1929,” I was inspired to explore the visual-sense training apparent in MacKay’s project. I knew when I began reading the extensive annual comments published by the project administrators in the Nova Scotia Journal of Education that there was a bigger story to tell than just the collection of data. By the time I had the opportunity to handle MacKay’s original ledgers at the Nova Scotia Museum, thanks to librarian Lynda Silver, I was smitten.

So I made MacKay’s project the first chapter of my dissertation, a cultural history of eyesight in late nineteenth-century rural Nova Scotia. I put his “observers in training” into conversation with other moments of historical anxiety about visual perception: the inculcation of modern agricultural aesthetics at county exhibitions; the marketing of eyeglasses to rural consumers; concerns about the eyesight of sailors in relation to coastal navigation; ideas and experiences of blindness in the province.

My article for the Atlantic Canada issue of Scientia Canadensis draws on that chapter, but introduces MacKay’s project without the specific conceptual framework of visual culture that I applied in my dissertation. Instead, I focus on the interaction between the project administrators and the thousands of young rural women who participated.

While climate scientists have done incredible work analysing phenological patterns by crunching MacKay’s historical data, I have always been more interested in the cultural context of rural Nova Scotia, where the data were produced. To begin, this includes an acknowledgement that any projects of rural modernization—including MacKay’s phenology project and public education more broadly—were/are always efforts to consolidate ambiguous settler authority over Indigenous lands, in this case the territory of Mi’kma’ki.

Ripe rosehips. Rosa rugosa is naturalized along the coasts of much of Nova Scotia. Photo Sara Spike

Many of the young women in MacKay’s project demonstrated extraordinary knowledge and awareness of their local environment. Others documented what was perhaps quite ordinary knowledge in their time, but which today might seem highly specialized as public awareness of wild plants and birds has become less common. I felt a kinship with these women as I reflected on my own relationship to long-standing rural traditions of keeping track of the changing seasons. Like them, I am a beneficiary of the settler colonialism that enabled my Acadian and British ancestors to make a life on this land, and which allowed me to grow up in intimate relation with the unique ecology of Nova Scotia’s salt-sprayed coastal forests. I was raised in a rural, working-class home where well-worn Peterson field guides to birds and wildflowers were kept on a shelf by the supper table. From a young age I learned to recognize an osprey’s chirp, to anticipate the appearance of mayflowers, the ripening blueberries, and where along the shore to find the rosiest rosehips as the seasons turned. The hummingbirds always arrived for my birthday in early May. I would have loved taking part in MacKay’s phenology experiment as a child.

Trilliums blooming in Mount Royal Park, Montreal. Photo Sara Spike

Uprooted from my home coast while living in Montreal during graduate school, I began to teach myself about the local plants of the deciduous Laurentian forest, particularly the dramatic display of understory ephemerals that dazzled me each spring—hepatica, spring beauty, bloodroot, trout lilies. I learned that in Mount Royal Park, the trilliums bloomed for my birthday. And along the railway tracks that ran through my neighbourhood I reconnected with tansy and met bladder campion for the first time. I began sharing my observations on social media and found a friendly community eager to chart the emergence of the same and related wildflowers (with varying local names) across our shared northern biome, and others doing the same in other parts of the world.

As I walked slowly, looking carefully, paying attention, grateful for small wonders, and informally documenting the seasonal changes around me, MacKay’s project resonated with me personally, even as I found much to unpack and critique about its historical significance and his specific approach. My walks in the woods and through the miscellaneous green spaces and so-called vacant lots of the city sustained me through graduate school. Although MacKay and those young women only appear in one chapter of my dissertation, they were with me through my entire degree. I am delighted now to share their story with the readers of Scientia Canadensis.

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