One of the great joys of my job is that I get to travel and interact with colleagues and students all over the world. Two weeks ago, I wrote to you about some of my trips to China. This week, I’m reporting on locales that aren’t as exotic as China, but are definitely exotic in their own way: Norman, Oklahoma and Knoxville, Tennessee.
These trips within the US, especially at this time of year, always amaze me because I get to see spring emerging over and over again. Both Norman and Knoxville are at peak spring: redbud trees and daffodils were blooming in Oklahoma, and the dogwood flowers were as bright and white as I’ve ever seen them in Tennessee. We all know that spring arrives a little earlier in the southern US than it does here in Vermont.
And maybe you’ve heard that spring is coming a little earlier each year (though it might not seem like it this year in Vermont, but wait until Monday…). My friend Jake Weltzin runs the National Phenological Network which tracks all things phenological (phenology is just the timing of biological events, like onset of spring). They have some incredible data here in the US (see here for example). But the most amazing data about spring arriving earlier and earlier comes from Japan. Amazingly, folks in Japan have been documenting when cherry trees flower in the spring for hundreds of years. If you look at this striking graph, you’ll see pretty clearly that, sure enough, spring is coming earlier and earlier each year.
But so what? Isn’t it good that spring is coming earlier and earlier? I know I’ve heard some folks grumbling that they’re ready for spring here in Vermont. What are the consequences of earlier and earlier springs? One answer is that not all species are responding to changing climates in the same way. Some species are being triggered to migrate earlier in the year, even though when they arrive at their spring destinations, nothing is actually available for them to eat; that is, ecological systems are becoming uncoupled, and we don’t really know what the consequences of that uncoupling might be, except that many of the players in ecosystems have evolved complex webs of interactions with other species and are inextricably linked to one another. If the phenology of one species is affected, it’s likely that others are as well (see this story from The Guardian, for example).
But we were talking about Tennessee and Oklahoma. Let’s go back there. It’s more likely than not that the average person on the street in Tennessee or Oklahoma isn’t concerned about climate change. However, they probably realize that spring is coming earlier and earlier and our climate system is out of whack. Though I spent most of my time at universities in Tennessee and Oklahoma, I also got to talk to three cab drivers for about 20 minutes each. Cab drivers are generally affable and like to talk and tell stories. Admittedly, they don’t always want to talk about global change or phenology, and I don’t either (as an aside, one cab driver wanted to talk to me about how to commit the perfect murder; I’m not sure she was affable). But I have been taking these opportunities with cab drivers to talk about global change and its consequences. In the backseat of a cab, I can’t rely on fancy slides or graphs or data because we’re just two people in a car talking. But I can talk to them about what they’ve seen changing where they are, how the forest behind their grandma’s house has changed since they were a kid, how invasive fire ants are now in places they never used to be, how spring is coming earlier and earlier, and some storms are more intense and more frequent than they used to be.
As I’ve said before, we need to get out of our bubbles and talk to the rest of society about what’s important to us and why. When I travel to other universities or to conferences, I talk to hundreds of people who generally see the world in the same ways I do. But in these chats with cab drivers, where I’m just talking as a human to another human, I hope do some good. I’m not pedantic, pencil-headed, or science-y. Instead, we’re just people talking. And we need more of that – just people talking to one another.
So next time you’re in a taxi, be it in Knoxville, Boston, Dubai, New Orleans, or wherever, talk to your driver about what’s important to you and why. Or if you don’t ride in taxis, talk to someone you normally wouldn’t talk to about what’s important to you and why. Don’t preach, proselytize, or provoke (though there is a time for that). Just talk.
Happy almost spring –
p.s. Tyler Doggett has been making connections with the public here in Burlington, with his public discussions about a variety of topics. Because I was traveling, I didn’t get to go, but I certainly heard great things about it.