One unusually warm February morning, I took a walk out to Mountsberg’s sugar bush. As I walked, I heard the first red-winged blackbirds calling in the marsh and paused to smile. The call of recently returned red-winged blackbirds is one of the very first harbingers of spring, and one that I look forward to each year. It was a little early, but any sign that spring may eventually arrive is welcome in the depths of February.

The day progressed and the temperature continued to rise into spring-like double digits. As I was working among the trees I saw a large shadow glide over the ground. Looking up, I saw the tell-tale broad V-shaped wings of a Turkey Vulture soar overhead. Being the first to spot a Turkey Vulture each spring is a matter of honour among Halton park staff, so I am attuned to their typical arrival date of early to mid-March. A Turkey Vulture spotting in February was another unusually early sign of spring. My excitement turned to curiosity.

By day’s end, a chorus of spring peepers, generally the first frogs to call each spring, was sounding throughout the sugar bush. At this point my curiosity turned to concern. Red-winged black birds, turkey vultures, and spring peepers in February? In nature, outliers happen, birds and frogs behave according to their own clock and early arrivals can be part of normal seasonal variation. However, three outliers in February, while the temperature soared to well above freezing, were conditions well outside of the norm, in my experience.

There are places in Halton parks, like the Mountsberg sugar bush, that I have come to know by spending time watching the seasons turn and nature follow its course. They are places where the pattern of comings and goings, and the cycle from bud to bloom to seed have become patterns that I can now anticipate and understand. This pattern recognition is a form of literacy known as ecological literacy, and it is part of our birthright as human beings. We are adapted to recognize and respond to natural patterns as a matter of survival.

We consider ourselves to be a literate society based on our ability to understand the written word. However, there are many forms of literacy, which is defined as “competence or knowledge in a specified area”. In our quest to navigate our modern, human-centered way of life, many of us have lost another essential form of literacy.  We have become ecologically illiterate. This illiteracy crept up on us generation by generation, as we slowly moved away from a life lived on the land, to a life lived in human created and controlled environments. We have become people who know our ABCs, but not the birds and trees.

In losing this connection we have lost a powerful source of joy. Being present in nature and learning from Indigenous knowledge keepers, environmental educators, and ecologists has helped me to re-establish my connection. There is so much joy in knowing where to find raspberry bushes and when the berries will be ripe. Grocery store berries have nothing on their sun-warmed cousins. There is so much joy in hearing the first call of the red-winged blackbird when you are eagerly anticipating spring.

Which brings us back to the concerning presence of the red-winged blackbird, turkey vulture, and spring peeper in the sugar bush on that warm February day. In the era of climate change, ecological literacy once again becomes an essential survival skill. If you don’t know the patterns of your local ecosystem, how can you know if it changes?

You don’t need to know the latin name and taxonomy for every plant and creature. What’s needed is regular and attentive time spent in your local ecosystem. Notice the trees in your neighbourhood, do you know what species they are, when they come into leaf, what birds might nest in their branches, or when they produce seed? Notice the birds, do you know whether they are native or non-native, what they eat, or when they migrate? Notice the flowers, do you know when they usually bloom, what insects rely on them, or how they smell?  Understanding these simple things will help you notice changes when they happen in your own backyard. These changes are the warning that you need to look more deeply at the cause, because all of the pieces of an ecosystem are interconnected. Something as seemingly simple as a change in the timing of the migration of one species of bird can have an impact on the health of many pieces of the ecosystem. The migration of insectivorous birds, like tree swallows for example, must coincide with the eruption of the flying insects on which they feed for the ecosystem to remain in balance.

Being alert to the environment and understanding how things normally look and work together helps you know when things change. These changes help us know when to look deeper, when to look to see if there is a connection to human activity, like climate change; human activity we can work to change for the better. Becoming ecologically literate takes time and patience, but if you don’t know what ‘normal’ looks like you really can’t know when it changes. You won’t know what you had, even when it’s gone.

In the end, ecological literacy is also something that very simply enriches your life and the life of the children around you, when you share it with them. An ecologically literate life is one where each season brings new and exciting changes – the return of beloved birds, the blooming of raspberry flowers that promise juicy berries to come, the fading of one season into another in a continuous, glorious cycle of interconnected living things. It is our birthright to have this joy and share it with our children. In the face of climate change, it is also our responsibility. We must watch and learn so we can raise a red flag when we see changes that indicate an imbalance in the health of the delicate ecosystems we rely upon.

Fortunately, it’s never too late to start – seek out someone who can share a place with you, someone who can show you all the things you didn’t know to look for. Spend some time in their favourite place with them and then on your own. Put your phone down and listen, breathe, watch, explore. Then go again, and again and notice how it changes. It takes time for a place to reveal itself to you, but it is worth the effort, the birds and the trees are waiting.

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Last modified: July 5, 2018

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