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The Phenology Guy

Posted on Saturday, September 20th, 2008.

Phenology: A branch of science dealing with the relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena.? Source: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

John Latimer has his Carhart logger jeans rolled up. He is taking me on a short nature hike up the Mississippi River, which runs in back of the MobileWest booth. John is a rural mail carrier in Grand Rapids, Minnesota who has been hosting The Phenology Show at KAXE for 25 years, collecting data about the natural world from classrooms and fellow observers. He gets people excited about what they see.

John Latimer

Down the path, there is a plant that he doesn’t recognize. Normally, he carries a voice recorder so that he can describe the plant and later determine its name. Today, he borrows a piece of paper. “These seeds are just astounding,” he says, using a mechanical pencil to draw a picture of the plant.

“The more you find out, the more you realize that you don’t know,” he says. “I’ve always had this ëOh my God, look at this’ approach. I look at things around me with the eyes of a 5th grader.”

Inspecting an Unknown Plant

John regularly swims across lakes. “Look up at the top of those trees,” he says. “Now, imagine that there is a mirror reflecting above them and you can see the entire top of the forest.” John wears prescription goggles, so he can see the bottom of the lake. He puts on ice skates when it gets cold.

John grew up with parents who valued the names of things around him. His father was a forester and his mother was a “farm girl.” “When I was younger, though, the woods were just something I would walk through. Now I see this beak hazel and know it grows in clumps,” he says, pulling pack the red branches in front of him, “so I can find a path.”

A Mysterious Patch of Soil

As we walk the path towards the shade of a park, John stops to talk about what is around us: Poisonous baneberries, lady fern spores, and flying ants are all miniature worlds exposed to me in these path-side explanations.

When John walks into a classroom, he takes the kids outside to explain what phenology is, teaching them the importance of investigation. “If you see something new, capture its image and talk to your teachers, or get a field guide to see what it is.” John also likes to play with words, “When you give a kid a name for a thing, they like to take possession of it.”

Bugs Biting a Bug

Down by the river, we see a leafhopper. I look away, ready to hike back up the riverbank, but John stays where he is. “I get so excited about this stuff! He really is pretty – gold with green highlights. And there are three bugs on him!” Now I’m interested, squinting my eyes to see the three tiny red bugs that are biting the leafhopper.

At this point, the world around me is a lot more intricate than I knew before this hike. “Where do you start with nature if you don’t know much about it?” I ask. “Start in your own backyard,” he says without hesitation. “You have a big lawn and you probably have it mowed. See what you can find that is not grass and then find a field guide that you like.”

John never perceives himself as an expert. “I’m just a guy who is interested in what’s going on,” he says. “I have no problem being corrected. I’m just like the Platte River – I am 1 mile wide and 1 inch deep.”

Looking at the wet rocks under his feet, he says, “There is not a day that goes by without a mystery that needs to be investigated.”

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