The Importance of Observation

How did we figure things out before the internet? Did we learn at school?

In the US, children weren’t required to attend school until about 100 years ago. As such, schools have only been a source of learning for large populations in recent times.

Did we learn from books? Books have been around for thousands of years. For most of that history, though, books were not widely available. It wasn’t really until about the 18th century, during the enlightenment, that books became available to all of us ordinary folks.

Did we learn from our parents and our community? Certainly, for most of human history, a good deal of learning came by way of other people. But, then how did we increase our knowledge? Did we just go out meet new people and ask them to give us their knowledge? Likely we did.

Yet how did those who taught others first learn? How did humans first determine what was safe and healthy to eat, what and where to drink, how to live?

There’s a lot of speculation on the subject of how early humans figured out what was safe to eat and how to create and use tools. We may not have fully unraveled those mysteries. However I know one thing for certain.

Before all these other methods of learning evolved, nature was our teacher. We are designed to learn directly from nature.

Many of us have forgotten how to learn from nature because we are so accustomed to learning by other methods. As a homesteader though, I promise you, nature is still a better teacher than any others you will have.

Predicting the Weather

Most of us can get weather predictions from a website or app  in just a click or two. But can you walk outside and know what kind of day it’s going to be?

I can.

Quite frankly, I am much more accurate at it than the meteorologists who report predictions for my area. I can literally feel if rain is coming, or snow, or warm, or wind – even hours to days before it happens.

I can also predict long-term trends accurately. I can tell whether winter will be exceptionally cold or not in August or September. I can come within a week of knowing our last frost day three months before it happens.

You can do all of this too if you put your mind to it.

How to Know What Nature Knows

I didn’t start out with this ability to predict the weather. I used to be as dependent on weather reports with limited accuracy as everyone else. But after years of carefully observing and recording the weather, my body and brain simply know what’s coming. 

I didn’t have to take a class on how to read the different cloud types. I didn’t have to attend a nature course to learn how to recognize the natural patterns around me.

All I did was start paying attention to the weather every day. I kept a notebook to record the date and the weather conditions. I also recorded anything that stood out related to the weather or the time of year.  Here are some examples of what I wrote down.

Peepers

I marked the first date I heard the peepers (singing tree frogs). Then, I marked when the peepers singing increased, when it stopped, the nights when it was so loud it almost broke my ear drums, and the nights they failed to sing.

Weeds

I recorded when new weeds appeared, when they started to look stressed, and when they disappeared from the landscape. If I didn’t know the name of the weed, I gave them one as a placeholder. Later, when I had time, I looked them up and learned as much as I could about them.

Blooms and Pollinators

I noted when flowers and weeds bloomed and what insects visited those plants. Again, if  didn’t know the exact name, I made up my own. As time allowed, I used online databases to identify them. I kept track of populations based on my perception.

Personal Physical Changes

I also noted physical changes in me. My body seemed to know things my brain didn’t. For example, even though we keep our house thermostat set to the same temperature most of the time, my toes are always cold on mornings when it’s cold and damp outside.

I have ringing in my ears before big, windy storms. My hair and fingernails start to grow noticeably faster a few weeks before our last frost each year.

The Expansion Effect

How to tell the weather is just the beginning of what you can learn from nature. Once you begin to make observation a habit, you quickly develop accurate, intuitive instincts for almost anything you do regularly.  For example, you begin to understand:

  • How to grow things well
  • How much liquid to add to anything (batter, soil, concrete) to get the right consistence
  • Whether something will fit in location or space
  • Whether or not a recipe, instruction set, or idea will work
  • How much things weigh without a scale
  • When to be cautious
  • When to charge ahead

Now, this doesn’t mean you will automatically listen to yourself on these subject. We’ve become accustomed to relying on external resources for our knowledge. So it can take a while before you truly trust your own natural expertise.

It can also take a while before your instincts begin to be right most of the time. A healthy dose of self-skepticism, at the outset, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Observation Triggers Intuition

Still, I know with certainty that the more time you spend observing the natural world, the more spillover you have into all the facets of your homesteading life.

I don’t know exactly why this is true. But I believe that once we begin using our powers of observation acutely for one thing, then they just keep working in everything else we do. Observation is like a muscle, the more you build it, the better it works.

Eventually, we simply become attuned to all the different forces at work in our various activities. We notice signals we missed before. We become better able to feel the answers.

Why Weather Observation

I am going to offer you some basic ideas on how to use weather observation as a gateway to expanding your observation skills. I chose weather because it is something we all already have around us. That makes it an equal opportunity tool for any new homesteader regardless of where or how you live.

Knowing your weather patterns is also critical to so much of your homestead planning and decision-making. Even if you are skeptical about the benefits of weather observations on something like baking a cake, knowing your weather patterns in general is still a key homesteading skill.

Though, please believe me, weather also makes a huge difference when making a cake. It also impacts ripening, harvesting, cheese-making, bread production, fruit and vegetable fermentation, seed germination, livestock behavior and so much more.

Useful Tools

You do not need to buy anything for this exercise. However, having access to a few tools will enhance the experience.

Notebook

It will be easier if you record your observations in a bound notebook so you can carry it with you and find all your observations in one place. But, if you don’t have one, you can also write them on scrap paper and then collect them in a grocery bag.

I know you may be tempted to record this in a text file or spreadsheet. That can be awesome for long-term data collection.  However, we have a tendency to forget data we store electronically since we know we can find it easily when we need it. Recording this information using a pen and a paper is like a signal to your body that this information needs to be integrated into your brain.

Trust me, writing it down is important. But you can also record it in an electronic file too if you want to use it later.

Gauges

Ideally you will want some way to confirm your own observations on the temperature, humidity, quantity of rain, and strength and direction of the wind.  You can use formal gauges for this like thermometers, barometers, rain gauges, and wind vanes.

If you don’t have the budget for these things, though, you can simply use the reported data from your closest weather station. Weather services like Weather Underground allow you access to the data from Personal Weather Stations (PWS) that might be much closer to you than the regional airports that may not accurately represent your conditions.

How to Start Observing the Weather

Now that you have chosen your tools, it’s time to start observing.  Personally, I recommend doing this three times a day to start.  When you wake up, mid-day, and evening.

  1. Step outside or open a window. If you can’t (e.g. you live in a high-rise or are stuck in an office), put your hand on a window and look outside.
  2. Look around you for clues as to the weather conditions.
    • Are leaves rustling? Is trash blowing? How fast, how hard? From which direction?
    • Is there frost, snow, rain, moisture, dryness? Does it seem hot, cold, in between?
    • What are people wearing?  What are animals doing?
    • What sounds do you hear? Do they seem louder than usual or more distant?
    • Does anything stand out to you outside or inside?
    • How does your body feel?
  3. Guess what the conditions are based on your observations.
    • Estimate the temperature
    • Estimate the wind speed and direction
    • Estimate the humidity level
    • Guess at how much rain or snow a given storm system will drop or whether rain or snow is likely
  4. Check your gauges or the reported conditions at your nearest weather station.
  5. Contemplate the similarities and differences between what you noticed and what was confirmed by the gauges or weather station.

Your observations may be way off base when you first start paying attention to the weather. Or, you may be a natural at this. For now, it doesn’t really matter how accurate or inaccurate you are. The real benefit comes simply from making observation a habit.

At some point in the future, you will become a walking weather station. It could take months or years depending on where you live, your background, and how consistently and completely you do this exercise each day.

Don’t worry about your performance, just keep at it as often as you can. Even if you can’t do it three times a day, or even every day, just do it as much as you can. The more often you do a thing, the better you get. However, even a little learning here and there can start to add up.†

Tomorrow, continue your simple homesteading journey with Recognizing Resources.

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5 thoughts on “The Importance of Observation

    1. Thank you for reading. It is definitely more difficult to find natural clues in the city. I started my practice of observation in Washington DC. There I paid attention to things like when the cherry blossoms plumped and bloomed, the changing plants used in front of buildings (it’s artificial, yet plants still show signs of health or decline). Bird sounds, squirrel activity, even prevalence or decline in obvious rat populations have meaning. The cycles of colds and flues in offices are also useful indicators of natural conditions. After a while, I could tell what kind of coat or if I needed an umbrella by the clues even in the city. It was much easier to develop my weather prediction skills when I moved out of the city. But, don’t let that stop you! Nature is is still there, underneath it all. Even your own body knows if you listen hard enough!

      Liked by 1 person

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