In his Beyond Chaos, physics author Mark Ward describes how if a person makes a pile of sand grain by grain, the material will mound upward until it gives way because of the addition of a single, crucial grain: “At the critical point the properties of the individual elements cease to matter and the interactions take over. Order emerges and the world rolls forth.”
Clear understanding of specific critical points is elusive not only to the physicist but to the everyday naturalist. Thoreau conjectured that the completion of the canopy of leaves could mark the exact start of summer. For others, that pivot time could be marked by the blooming of peonies or yellow poplars or wild multiflora roses or domestic tea roses or by meadow goat’s beard or sweet clovers or common timothy or pink yarrow, yellow moneywort, silver lamb’s ear or Canadian thistles, the first lilies, daisies, or the end of mock orange and honeysuckles or the first yucca flower or a day in the 80s.
In fact, the critical point of summer’s commencement is far more complex than experiments with chaos theory described by Mark Ward. In Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama suggests that the true beginning of any seasonal event lies in the mind of the beholder: “For although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perceptions into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.”
Like academic physicists who seek to identify with experiments the key shifts of balance that precipitate momentous events in the universe, we attempt to find the first moment of summer in the strata of our experience. Even as we sleep or go about our work or studies, even if we seem to be oblivious to the accumulation of events around us, suddenly we know that the grains of spring have reached critical proportions: Suddenly it’s summer.