Phenology and Local Knowledge in Early Twentieth-Century Rural Nova Scotia

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) Photo: Sara Spike

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Mayflower (Epigaea repens)
Mayflower (Epigaea repens)

In the coastal village of West Petpeswick, Halifax County, Nova Scotia, Ella Gaetz and her students found their first mayflowers of 1901 on March 24. In the Acadian community of Meteghan, Digby County, Sister Mary Alexius and her students found mayflowers on April 15 that year.[1] The annual appearance of mayflowers is always a watched-for sign of spring in Nova Scotia. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the event was even regularly reported in local newspapers, a symbolic end to winter. But for many teachers and students in the period, mayflowers were just one of more than one hundred very specific flora, fauna, and phenomena that they recorded each year.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)

Between 1897 and 1925, teachers and students across rural Nova Scotia made phenological observations on their walks to and from school. Phenology studies the timing of seasonal environmental cycles, so the observers noted phenomena such as the first mayflowers and alder buds in the spring, the first ripe wild strawberries, the first geese migrating in the fall, the opening and closing of rivers, the planting and harvesting of potatoes, and so on. Rural teachers were required to submit schedules at the end of each year detailing these observations. I have uploaded a copy of the historical form—as it appeared annually in the Nova Scotia Journal of Education—which can be downloaded here and I encourage everyone to play along at home as the season proceeds. While some of the flora are particular to eastern Canada, many more are found throughout the country, as are the fauna and other phenomena. The photos in this post represent just a few of the flora on the list.

Wild blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
Wild blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)

Phenology was the pet project of A. H. MacKay, Nova Scotia’s provincial Superintendent of Education, 1891–1926, who insisted on its inclusion in the rural curriculum. In addition to being an extremely motivated educator, MacKay was also an accomplished naturalist who published papers on lichens and sponges, among other topics. Beginning in 1893, MacKay presented yearly findings of his own phenological reports to the Nova Scotian Institute of Science and also communicated with the Royal Society of Canada. In 1897 he moved the project into the schools, realizing that as Superintendent of Education he had a large, free labour force at his command.

Ledger page, Hants and Colchester lowlands, 1902. Nova Scotia Museum.
Ledger page, Hants and Colchester lowlands, 1902. Nova Scotia Museum.

Selecting from among the forms sent in to them by teachers, MacKay and his “staff of phenologists”—mostly educators, both women and men—amassed detailed ledgers of the collected phenological data. These remarkable ledgers, held by the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, have been used by climate scientists to characterize and chart historical climate patterns in Nova Scotia.[2] This is exactly as MacKay had hoped they would be used, though he could never have imagined the significance such data would hold in the early twenty-first century.

Twinflower (Linnea borealis)
Twinflower (Linnea borealis)

In my dissertation—a history of vision in rural Nova Scotia—I am interested in the history of MacKay’s project itself. Moving beyond the accumulated data, I situate the project within a broader history of sensory training and elementary school nature-study lessons. I suggest that MacKay’s project illustrates the complicated and incomplete work of establishing the authority of science in rural communities through the early twentieth century. What I would like to share in this brief post for the Otter is just one small part of that research: some of the ways that rural teachers and children made this project their own.

One unusual characteristic of MacKay’s phenology project is the extent to which participants were both coerced into participating and routinely chastised for their alleged failure to adhere to the project’s required scientific rigour. Each year the staff who compiled the submissions published critical notes in the Journal of Education, including often caustic reprimands about the poor quality of submissions. There is a sense that participants chaffed against the limitations of the project, which did not seem relevant to their own experiences of their communities. It is also clear that most teachers did not know where their data was going, or to what end.

Nature Observations, Summerville Centre, Queens Co., 1905-1906. Nova Scotia Museum.
Nature Observations, Summerville Centre, Queens Co., 1905-1906. Nova Scotia Museum.

Nevertheless, thousands of rural teachers and their students participated in MacKay’s phenology project, often with great enthusiasm. But they did so on their own terms—much to the dismay of administrators. This was most obvious when teachers added additional notes to the end of their forms, as many did. These extra entries were encouraged by the administrators for the sake of general interest, but they were not averaged or tabulated. Extra entries were expected to adhere to scientific method and nomenclature, which was seldom the case. The persistent use of colloquial or regional names for plants and birds was one of the main grievances of the phenological staff. Most teachers included just a handful of extra entries. Ella Gaetz, whose mayflowers opened this essay, added seven items: Common Daisy (a colloquial name for ox-eye daisy), Butterfly, Swallows, Elder flowering, Robin’s nest seen, Peas planted, and Peas blooming. But it is common to find dozens of additional items, and occasionally more than one hundred, either scribbled into the margins or listed in tidy handwriting on extra sheets of paper attached to the schedule. Particularly when they are few, the extra entries are often very sweet—such as the first butterflies, bees, and pussy willows—very common entries that certainly seem to reflect what may have been of interest to schoolchildren.

Ella Gaetz's extra entries, West Petpeswick, 1900-1901. Nova Scotia Museum.
Ella Gaetz’s extra entries, West Petpeswick, 1900-1901. Nova Scotia Museum.

Some observations fell even further beyond the boundaries of MacKay’s project, making reference to meaningful events of significance to particular communities. In the winter of 1905–1906, Myra Ross in Brule, Colchester County, noted the date that the harbour froze (December 12) and the date that it was first crossed on foot (January 8). In 1908, A. McPherson in Charlo’s Cove, Guysborough County, recorded the dates for the first local catches of lobster, mackerel, haddock, and herring. And in 1924 Olive Lewis in Upper Economy, Colchester County, noted the first lighting of the Burncoat lighthouse on March 25, the same day that the first vessel came into Cobequid Bay.[3] It is no coincidence that all of these examples make reference to a close relationship with the ocean, something that MacKay’s list did not call for.

Lambkill (Kalmia angustifolia)
Lambkill (Kalmia angustifolia)

In their persistent use of colloquial naming and their insistence on broadening and complicating the boundaries of MacKay’s project, generations of rural teachers may have been demonstrating their ignorance of scientific language and practices, and they were certainly declaring their ambivalence for the formality of MacKay’s project, but year after year for more than twenty-five years, they were also arguing for the legitimacy of more personalized forms of local knowledge—arguing that these deserved a place in official records. Many of these unique and idiosyncratic notes, then as now, defy the neat columns of tables and graphs. They are similar to the observations that rural people were making in private, asserting the public relevance of environmental knowledge that would otherwise have been tucked away in daybooks and diaries—a kind of rural place-making.

[1] Compiled ledgers, 1901, A. H. MacKay Ledger Collection, Nova Scotia Museum Library, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

[2] See Adam Fenech et al., “Impact of Climate on Changes in the Seasonal Timing of Life Cycle Events of Eastern Canada from 1901 to 1923,” in Integrated Mapping Assessment, ed. Adam Fenech et al. (Toronto: Environment Canada, 2005), 55–69; Liette Vasseur, Robert L. Guscott, and Peta J. Mudie, “Monitoring of Spring Flower Phenology in Nova Scotia: Comparison over the Last Century,” Northeastern Naturalist 8, no. 4 (January 2001): 393–402.

[3] Collected Returns, years ending July 1906, July 1908, A. H. MacKay Ledger Collection; Upper Economy file, NSARM RG 14, vol. 111, school papers, Colchester County 1895-1960.

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Sara Spike

Sara Spike received her PhD in History from Carleton University in 2016. Her research focuses on histories of visual culture, rural places, and Atlantic Canada.

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