Phenology of Oberlin Springtime Reveals Changes for Wildlife, Graduates

Joshua Morse

Phenology: the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life

Faced with carpenter bees and daffodils in March, I figured climate change must be to blame. I know that a single, anomalous year can’t be solely attributed to global warming, but I was sure that this early spring was a harbinger of springs in coming years as the changes intensify. When the magnolias bloomed the week before spring break, I was particularly put out. I look forward to the magnolias every spring and had been hoping their blossoms would color my last few weeks of April, helping me through my Honors thesis as they’ve helped me through smaller end-of-the-year tasks before. I had not expected to experience an April bereft of flowers as I finish my senior year, a confused spring that feels halfway lost to summer already.

I was not alone in my disappointment. All the myriad pollinators of spring were also at a loss — much greater, as it happens, because they rely on the flowers for sustenance. The red admirals and sulfurs (some of our most common butterflies) emerged on schedule in mid-April to a world of unanticipated green, of inedible leaves where they had depended on nectar-filled blossoms. The magnolias, snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils may have suffered the greatest blow. Blooming in response to the early warmth, their flowers expired long before many of their various insect patrons emerged, leaving the plants with limited means of exchanging pollen.

The day I turned in my Honors thesis for review, I walked out of the Science Center past a cluster of leafing magnolias and rows of green daffodil shoots bereft of petals. I was bound for home, where my housemates’ theses due within the next few days were the least of their concerns. The economic recession had made itself felt on campuses across America in these final months of the semester, and despite the endless obligations and temptations of senior spring, my housemates and I had been spending most of our energy worrying about what would come next. The flowers and pollinators are not the only ones whose schedules have been capriciously accelerated. There are seasonal cycles and rhythms associated with graduation as well, and our changing economic climate has acted upon them, its intense heat prompting early blooms and unanticipated die-offs in the narrative of my last semester at Oberlin.

The pressure to find a job, to answer the question of what comes next, had forced my housemates and I to set our sights beyond Oberlin for good, shedding our petals and putting out leaves months too early. Like the precocious springtime flowers, my graduating class has transitioned far too soon out of the intellectual cross-pollination that should characterize college.

With the economy still shot, graduate students are snapping up the entry-level positions in labs, nonprofits and publishing houses across the country that newly minted B.A.-holders might once have filled. We undergraduates have found ourselves embroiled in intense job searches instead of senior recitals and Honors theses, interviewing frantically with employers half a world away instead of connecting with each other. A blossoming that should have occurred gradually, over the space of many months, has been accelerated and compressed and is now nearly over.

Our precocious scramble for employment has sent ripples through the Oberlin community, just as the early blooming of our spring flowers affects a host of creatures across the energy web. We have withdrawn too early from our peers and from this place, and our absence is not unfelt. Like any college, Oberlin is a space designed to facilitate exchanges between people, as pollinators do for flowers. Spring, with its recitals and presentations, concerts and guest lectures, is a time full of opportunity for such social and intellectual pollination to occur. But my class has bloomed too early, propelled forward under the heat of an unstable economic climate in the same way our spring flowers emerged and faded under the influence of the March thaw. Like magnolias that have shed their petals in advance of April’s butterflies and bees, our energy has been spent far in advance of the opportunities meant to help us build ties with each other in the final weeks of Oberlin.

It might be unfounded to assume that present conditions represent a new climatic norm, or that our current economic stagnation will not lift or at least change. But neither the unseasonable warmth nor the anemic job market can be disregarded as isolated anomalies, and the warnings inherent in both should be heeded. The fact is that our planet is warming, despite the claims of the Right, and that our economy has shown little evidence of recovery, contrary to the assertions of the Left. The phenologies of both springtime and graduation are changing, and the effects of this change on nature and on our culture are not discrete. The problems facing plants, pollinators and people in the environment and the economy are linked by more than metaphor. But although my class’s plight is not dissimilar to that of the precocious April flowers, we possess an agency they lack: In addition to perceiving and responding to changes in the cycles that structure our lives, we can act to shape and direct them.

The challenges are immense, but my classmates and I are eager to tackle them — just as soon as we’re safely employed.