Ground Truth: A Guide to Tracking Climate Change at Home

Ground Truth: A Guide to Tracking Climate Change at Home

by Mark L. Hineline


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Before you read this book, you have homework to do. Grab a notebook, go outside, and find a nearby patch of nature. What do you see, hear, feel, and smell? Are there bugs, birds, squirrels, deer, lizards, frogs, or fish, and what are they doing? What plants are in the vicinity, and in what ways are they growing? What shape are the rocks, what texture is the dirt, and what color are the bodies of water? Does the air feel hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or still? Everything you notice, write it all down.

We know that the Earth’s climate is changing, and that the magnitude of this change is colossal. At the same time, the world outside is still a natural world, and one we can experience on a granular level every day. Ground Truth is a guide to living in this condition of changing nature, to paying attention instead of turning away, and to gathering facts from which a fuller understanding of the natural world can emerge over time.

Featuring detailed guidance for keeping records of the plants, invertebrates, amphibians, birds, and mammals in your neighborhood, this book also ponders the value of everyday observations, probes the connections between seasons and climate change, and traces the history of phenology—the study and timing of natural events—and the uses to which it can be put. An expansive yet accessible book, Ground Truth invites readers to help lay the groundwork for a better understanding of the nature of change itself. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226348131
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/21/2018
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,215,940
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mark L. Hineline is instructor in history, philosophy, and sociology of science at Lyman Briggs College, Michigan State University.

Read an Excerpt


Intimate and Momentous

Welcome back. The place where you just took your walk? Let us call that your dooryard. Its dimensions are provisional. You can enlarge it or shrink it later, as you see fit.

It is here, in your dooryard, that climate is changing. Has been changing for quite some time. Will continue to change, almost certainly at faster rates.

Such a homely term, though, "dooryard." It is still in use today in some places to describe a patch of the outdoors where the business of human work and play, in and out of doors, transacts with the natural, the world over which we assume we have little control. Etymologically, the word traces to New England, generally, and Maine specifically. If you've read some Walt Whitman, the nineteenth-century poet who celebrated the United States as no other, you might recall that in his elegy to Abraham Lincoln, "When Last the Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloomed," the word is hyphenated. That's fine. Whitman was from away, a New Yorker. But: dooryard. In designating a kind of place, the specific meaning of the word draws a contradistinction to the front yard (a space meant to impress society) and the barnyard (a place for working with animals).

The dooryard is close in, a place for work but also for exchange. It's where the kitchen garden might be, full of herbs and simple greens, as well as a few varieties of posies. But it's also full of insects and is a favored place for cats or, if there are no cats, then other creatures that make their livings by living as near to human habitations as they can — mice, for example. Or voles.

I have had a dooryard or two, but before I describe them, let me showyou another. I've ventured there a couple of times, and I've encouraged students to go alone, or with a friend or two. I went with friends myself, and that was nice, but on my first visit, I went there alone, and that was ideal.

The space surrounding Henry David Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond in the years 1844–46 was all dooryard. There was no front yard, because although he had visitors at the cabin, Henry — let's call him Henry — was unostentatious and little concerned about what visitors should find when they arrived at his door. He briefly contemplated making them sit on pumpkins, but clearly thought better of it. There were chairs in the cabin, three chairs altogether. There was also no barnyard, since he kept no animals and there was no barn — just a woodshed, which is dooryard architecture.

A visitor today knows right where the cabin stood and just where Henry placed his door, thanks to some keen archaeological work undertaken decades ago. Obelisks and graceful chains mark the cabin's walls. Using a dose of imagination, you can walk around the cabin. Or you can go inside, turn around, and see very much what Henry saw when he opened his door and peered through his dooryard.

I almost wrote "past his dooryard," but that would have been wrong. For the two years that he lived at Walden Pond, the whole landscape was his dooryard — the trees, the slope leading down to the pond, the pond itself. It stopped at the railroad tracks. Where the Fitchburg train passed, that was another place.

I stood there one November day, alone, when the sky was overcast in low clouds and the calls of crows echoed through trees, which had recently shed their leaves. Being a historian, and an academic one at that, generally unsentimental of mind, I was surprised by the thoughts I had as I gazed out through the trees and across the pond. Here I was in this place, this hallowed place. Not far from here, no more than three or four miles away, a handful of men had the moxie to begin a war of independence. And they succeeded in winning their freedom and freedom for generations that followed.

Becoming and then being free, what did they do with their freedom? The answer was under my feet. Here, an irascible twenty-something decided to see what life, shed of entailments, might be. Later, he would report his findings to the world in Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

Walden began life as a book about freedom, but it wandered off into a description of the woods themselves, and of the lives that filled the woods, more than about Henry's life. While there, Henry began a lifetime habit of noticing and making notes about first appearances — the first appearances of flowers, of leaves, of birds.

From his attentiveness, Henry came to believe that November was a separate season, unlike any other. Just November. That was what I experienced in Henry's dooryard: freedom, and the season of November.

Or did I? Beginning in 2002, Richard B. Primack, a botanist at Boston University who had previously ventured to places like Borneo to collect field observations, turned his attention to Walden Pond and to Thoreau's records of plants and animals — mostly plants. Primack discovered that many of the plants in Thoreau's notes could no longer be found there. Just as important, other plants still growing in Concord flowered at different times from those that Henry observed. Primack concluded that Walden — Henry's dooryard — was warming.

Thoughts of Walden bring to mind my own dooryard, for I once had the luxury of a dooryard when I relocated to a very small town in Maine (where to call the town a "village" would seem an affectation). I was nearing the age that Henry had been when he built and moved into his cabin, and my move was perhaps proportionally equivalent to his. Concord is to Walden Pond as Boston is to rural Maine. I had been born in Portland twenty-five years earlier, and though I only recalled vacations there with family, I kept a romanticized vision of it in my head, aided at that time by the many letters and essays of E. B. White, whose book of correspondence had been published just the year before.

Whether close to the coast or inland, houses in Maine that date from the 1800s once supported subsistence agriculture, at least, if not full-blown agricultural output. The one I rented for my first year there was more the former than the latter, and it saw me through four full seasons. The house itself was what is known as a two-story colonial. It had an ell, with a large kitchen below and a bedroom above. Unlike many of the houses in town, the ell was the end of the line. There were no additional connected buildings. By tradition, many houses (both in town on a few acres or less, as this house was, and farther out on the blue highways and back roads) were connected: big house, little house, back house, barn. But even without a connecting back house (the little house was the ell), the property had a full set of yards — front, barn (for there was a barn), and dooryard.

I moved in at the height of winter, within a month of meeting the inspiration and model for this adventure, E. B. White, author of Charlotte's Web and for several decades the voice of the New Yorker magazine, at his home in North Brooklin, Maine. I had knocked on his door late on a January afternoon; he famously developed a strong dislike for this sort of intrusion, but I have a gracious reply to a letter of thanks I wrote him, and I later came to make a distinction between summer visitors and winter visitors. Perhaps he did, too.

My new home felt like the edge of a Great American Wilderness. It certainly was different from any place I had lived before. One local fact that I had difficulty ignoring, for the first month or two anyway, was that the elderly woman who would have been my next-door neighbor had been murdered in her home the week before I rented. My first visitor was a detective investigating the case (I soon learned that many of the townspeople seemed to know who did it; there was never an arrest). He assured me I had little to be concerned about.

I was essentially faced with a choice: live in E. B. White's Maine or live in Stephen King's. I chose the former. White's essays were full of pointers on how to succeed at rural life down east. Like other essayists before and since, White seemed fond of winter and winter's rhythms. Reading One Man's Meat gave me a vivid and sensuous image of something as mundane as a late evening visit to the barn, to check on the animals. I did not yet have farm animals, but I paid visits to the barn at night as though I did. I sent for seed catalogs and purchased the minimum gear needed for raising chickens. In the meantime, doing without a car (and resenting the need for one, to which I would eventually capitulate) my world was circumscribed by the distance I could walk daily on the sides of winter roads.

The house was "in town," where the houses were densely configured on lots of about an acre each. There was a general store (groceries, hardware, widgets), a gas station, and another smaller store that had only recently added refrigeration. This was known as Dot's, although Dot hadn't owned it for some time. After a spell, I would pay my bill at Dot's by baking apple pies for sale; that first year I ran my bill up and paid it down as best I could. I was able to make my living, or nearly so, doing freelance work for publishers in Boston, and so needed only to walk to the post office, the general store, and Dot's.

Snow fell regularly that winter and was cleared by plow trucks that absorbed much of the town's budget. Behind Dot's and beyond the bridge leading into town there was a smelt camp — a grouping of twenty or so small shacks that had been set out on the river ice so that fisherpersons could sit inside, warmed by a small woodstove, and fish for the little fish. At night, the space between shacks was lit by a string of electric lights. With these, the smelt camp gave the town a sense of something happening, possibly even some excitement, but as White had said nothing about smelt fishing, I put off a visit to some future time.

I did order seeds and eighteen chicks. I also bought taps for the maple trees in my dooryard. The chicks came first, and on that day, the post office was filled with the sounds of chicks in piles of cartons. I raised the chicks successfully, but a marauding member of the weasel family called a fisher, for which I was ill-prepared, killed all but two of the resulting hens. I slaughtered, plucked, and ate one chicken. The other provided brown eggs for a time.

The poultry aspect of my adventure didn't go especially well, and I tell of it only out of the wish to establish myself as a reliable narrator. But the maple syruping part was a success — in my eyes at least. My dooryard was lined with maples, and when conditions were just right — warmer temperatures in the morning, freezing at night — I drilled and tapped the trees and hung gallon milk containers that I'd collected for the purpose. These were unsightly but common; galvanized pails with little rooflike covers were a rich man's decoration. I gathered and evaporated enough sap to make maple syrup for my own consumption for a year, plus some maple sugar candies. I used up a lot of propane to do it.

As days grew longer, and the snow thinner, the sap stopped flowing. The smelt shacks had already come off the river. The river being tidal (a necessary condition for smelt), the ice groaned for several weeks as it rose and fell twice daily with the tide. It was so cold that year that the Coast Guard came up the Kennebec River with an icebreaker to get things moving. Crocuses called for a coming of spring — in Maine, the coming of spring lasted from early April until sometime in June — followed by the appearance of forsythia. The spring peepers, a type of aptly named chorus frog, came and went. I knew it was summer when the side yard (another oddity of this house) was suddenly filled with day lilies in bloom. Summer, hardly my favorite of the seasons to begin with, was made worse owing to the overabundance of freelance work passed on to me by publishers, but it fortunately passed on to fall in short order. None of seeds I ordered had gotten into the ground.

Fall brought longing. Some people graduate from high school or college and never look back. Others ache to revisit texts and notebooks as soon as the first leaves change. I am the latter type. I eventually resolved that seasonal nostalgia for campus life by remaking myself as a college professor. That year, though, I delved into autumn chores. My neighbor across the street was a local history buff and organizer of the historical society, which met in October around a cider press. We made cider and started talking about preparations for the winter to come. Would we all have enough firewood to "spring out"?

As these were the "energy crisis" years (Jimmy Carter was president and Michael Dukakis, governor of that state to the south, appeared on television appropriately dressed for his lowered thermostat in a cardigan sweater), we all thought and talked about energy the way others talked about real estate a few years later. My rent that first year, reasonable even then at $275 a month, was eclipsed by the cost of heating oil in such a large, uninsulated house. By midwinter the following year, I had moved to more efficient lodgings.

I was learning. And I was not and had never aspired to the role of back-to-the-lander. After a period of atonement in a tiny apartment closer to Dot's, I lived for seven years as a tenant on an apple farm several miles from the center of town. I planted a few of the five hundred apple trees on the property and took time to draw one of the bare root trees before I put it into the ground. But that first year, thanks to the absence of an automobile through the better part of it, I was more than usually attentive to the seasons.

Seasons are a fact of life, and few things in life are experienced with greater intimacy.

Good records of the sort that would be helpful are the core of phenology, the study of seasonal change. (I have heard it pronounced with a long e and a short one. Either is probably correct.) Phenology is best described as a minor science that has been practiced by major figures, including Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold. "Data" of the phenological kind also fill the diaries and letters of American men and especially women over the past two hundred years. As agricultural colleges developed in the post–Civil War years, phenology was sometimes offered as a course of instruction. Today's climate scientists have made use of these records as a way of identifying consequences of climate change.

To practice phenology means, specifically, noticing and then recording events that occur seasonally each year: the first buds of maple leaves, the first robin in the yard, the day that fireflies appear on a summer evening. Weather events are also of phenological interest. When was the final frost of the spring? And the first in the fall? How many days did cumulus clouds appear in the sky? How often did the tornado sirens sound?

Let us return to that list I asked you to make in the prologue. It is a rough draft of a list of potentially endangered entities. Your endangered entities list. Some of those entities are species. But if you were inclusive enough, some of your list items are other: rocks, perhaps, or the webs of spiders (the webs, unlike the spiders themselves, are not species). They are endangered because of climate change. On a walk ten years hence, or twenty or thirty, a list made in the same place, on the same day of the year, will be different. How it will differ is difficult to say. And that is much the point of this book.

Your dooryard may differ from what I just described in details small and large, and I have stretched and refashioned the term "dooryard" to mean something more than the Maine dooryard. When I write "dooryard," I am referring to your neighborhood, your environs, your surrounds.

As climate changes in an acute fashion — and it is changing, acutely — the world is also changing, your dooryard with it. The change is acute because it is in response to specific human actions that have increased by orders of magnitude over the past two hundred years, a very short time in the history of the planet. I will not try to convince you that this is so. By now, it is obvious to anyone who is paying attention. Anthropogenic climate change is an undeniable fact, albeit a noisy one. And it is so clearly the case, the fact of the matter, that if you don't believe it, you are practicing what the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called "the method of tenacity." There is almost nothing I can say that will change your mind, and so I will not try.

That last was rhetorical. You already know that the world's climates are changing, you know why they are changing, and you have a sense of what needs to be done to contain the variety of catastrophes that we face. None of that is the subject of this book. Instead, the pages that follow are about how to live in and how to know a changing world. Because, have no doubt: changes are unfolding.


Excerpted from "Ground Truth"
by .
Copyright © 2018 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Intimate and Momentous,
2 Seasons and Circulations,
3 Lilacs and Passing Time,
4 Noting with a Climate Eye,
5 Bedrock and Baselines,
6 The Green World,
7 Wriggles, Buzzes, and Calls,
8 Feathers and Phenophases,
9 Warm Blood and Live Birth,
10 The Atmosphere at Home,
11 Ground Truth,
Further Reading,

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