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Posted September 20, 2012 | comments 1 Comment

Eternal rhythms, history of words

By Roger Barbee - redhill@shentel.net

Words, like the valley's landscape, have history. Just as "The Pike" is different than it was in the last century, words are used differently over time and thus, like our land, their usage changes. In fact, some words are invented out of need (Shakespeare is credited with coining more than 10,000 words or phrases, such as whirligig in Twelfth Night) or out of convenience, such as prioritize in the last 40 years. It is this thought that brings me to phenology, which was first used about 1884 and comes from the word phenomena plus ology, or the study of phenomena.

Any sports fan is familiar with the word phenomena and its slang abbreviation, phenom, which is used to refer to an athlete of real or imagined outstanding skill. It is overused, or trite, but that is another matter. However, not long ago, I noticed what I think is a true phenomena: a garden spider, or writing spider, had spun a fine web in one of the sedums in our garden, where she stayed for a while capturing insects in her intricate web, much like Charlotte's in that delightful book by E.B. White. And as Charlotte's, her web was different each morning after she re-constructed it each night. Sadly, her departure was like her arrival - too soon and unannounced.

A few days after her leaving, I heard the sound of crickets outside and inside the house, especially on the screened porch. It seemed in no time that they were everywhere - males rubbing their fore wings in stridulation, trying to attract a reserved, yet willing female, and protecting their territory. This chirping, noise to some and music to others, supports their root word from the French "criquer" or little creaker, and their presence reminded me to look out our dining room window at the crepe myrtle, which was, as the crickets' song had indicated, coming to bloom. That evening I took note of the sun's position as it set over Back Mountain, and realized that it was no longer behind Ben's green barn next to Route 11, but quite a bit more southward toward Mt. Jackson. And the next morning, to be certain, I rose at 5:30 to see if it was light Darkness held the morning still - no sunlight broke the ridge of Massanutten. The long days of summer had waned, and later that day I noticed butterflies of every description and color as they filled the air, as if announcing the coming of fall. No yellow school bus on our streets or ounty fair was needed as a reminder. The earth's eternal rhythm, or phenology, was happening whether I took notice or not, and that came as a comfort.

Somewhere in my tenure as an educator, I read a phrase that was written as a warning. Sadly, I can't remember the author to give credit to her or him, but the warning was that if we were not careful, we would develop students who were information rich but experience poor. Perhaps this unknown writer has been proven too insightful.

Loren Eiseley, the naturalist and writer, tells of being a boy in rural Nebraska in 1913 and checking out from the town library a book titled "The Home Aquarium: How to Care for It" by Eugene Smith. Eiseley goes on to recount how he followed Smith's directive: "You got the glass, you cut it yourself, you made bottoms and sides of wood. Then, somewhere, you obtained tar to waterproof the wood and joints."

For Eiseley, there was no pet store stocked with not only aquariums of all sizes and shapes, but also the fish, plants, and silly toys to put in the one purchased. For him, the experience of making his own aquarium (he even fashioned one out of a cigar box) led to information and knowledge before he began to walk the creeks of his neighborhood for specimen.

As he writes, "...there had been placed within my hands the possibility of being the director, the overseer of living worlds of my own.... and if one spends long hours observing, as I later came to do, one makes one's own discoveries and is not confined to textbooks."

Being retired gives one the leisure of time, but try and pause each day to take stock in the natural world and learn from the eternal rhythms that march on, unaware of our doings. Listen for the cricket's song or watch the spider in its we, or mark the sunset each week on Back Mountain and see how the tilt of earth changes its position. And next spring, listen for the peepers. Make your own discoveries. You will be glad you did.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net

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