GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — As the Minnesota Legislature culminates with a flurry of activity on its last weekend this session, John Latimer wasn't hopeful.

Modest funding intended to turn kindergarten through high school students into broadcast nature reporters likely won’t be included as he once expected.

"We're resubmitting the whole application again for next year," Latimer said, resigned.

John Latimer rests on an English shooting stick (a one-legged seat) while walking a trail on his property on Crooked Lake near Grand Rapids.  (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
John Latimer rests on an English shooting stick (a one-legged seat) while walking a trail on his property on Crooked Lake near Grand Rapids. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

For approaching 40 years, Latimer has been the host of “The Phenology Show” on KAXE-FM 91.7 in Grand Rapids, offering weekly reports on what he’s observing in nature.

As part of his work, he produces a supplemental radio show, “Phenology Talkback,” that issues student reports over the airwaves. Latimer partners with teachers from mostly the Arrowhead region who train their students in making phenology observations.

Even at 71, the retired rural mail carrier had been poised to expand the program.

The station applied for $200,000 in funding from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). It would be used to train 80 teachers in areas throughout the state, and result in the creation of hundreds of radio segments for the station’s roughly 18,000 weekly listeners from Ely on down. It would have also meant the creation of a statewide digital map chronicling student observations.

“Students near Northfield could have put in, ‘Our red maple flowered today,’ and, boink, there’s a pin on the map,” Latimer said. “You could look at that map for two weeks and watch those points just kind of climb the state.”

The LCCMR had been expected to issue approximately $70 million from what are lottery-generated funds aimed at special environment and natural resource projects. But a GOP plan to draw money for water treatment plants from the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund that's overseen by LCCMR has stalled the approval of disbursements.

Latimer wasn’t too disheartened by the political fallout.

When the News Tribune met him on his 40 acres of pristine Northern Mesic Hardwood Forest last week, Latimer was upbeat and dedicated to moving ahead. Though statewide expansion of the program wasn’t yet in the offing, he still planned to volunteer to keep his current list of 17 contributing schools engaged.

“I’ve been doing this over 20 years, just volunteering on my own,” he said. “I’ve had schools doing phenology since 1997-98.”

Latimer developed his own phenology skills while driving the same rural roads during his mail delivery career.

John Latimer.
John Latimer.

“It was the perfect thing — 100 miles and it was the same every day,” he said. “I got real familiar with it, and knew every stump that looked like a grouse along that whole route.”

These days, as COVID-19 keeps him from taking his daily endurance swims at the Itasca County Family YMCA, Latimer is watching spring unfold on his own land.

“We’re into the peak time of year right now,” Latimer said. “This is when it gets cracking; you have to be out there every day.”

A walk in the woods revealed no fewer than six of his daily notes. In his career, he's recorded almost 48,000 such phenology notes.

“The state of advancement on the aspens — this pale green wash of leaves that’s come over them now — we are probably a week behind,” he said.

As he walked, Latimer whistled an eagle cry as one flew overhead, noted the serenading loons on the 70-acre Crooked Lake behind his house, and told stories about the nesting swans visible in the reeds off the lake.

Latimer clocked the yellow flowers of the marsh marigolds he’s keeping track of, and noted how the ostrich fern is the one you want to find to eat.

“It’s going to be as good as asparagus,” he said. “I wait for them every year; they’re just wonderful.”

The day started foggy and damp, and brought out mosquitoes.

“I had my first mosquitoes somewhere around April 18,” he said. “Interestingly, the first mosquitoes are big and slow and I always look at it like it’s spring training. By summertime, they get faster and smarter and they’re a lot harder to hit.”

He pointed out the small bushes of Canadian fly honeysuckle with their oval leaf. It's an easy spy for him and the sort of observation that sticks with phenology newcomers.

"If you look around us, nothing else is leafed out," he said. "They're really early, way ahead of anything else and that's their habit."

Taking in the surroundings with him, it was clear why Latimer had been able to inspire reports from hundreds of students through the years.

"We've got so many things going on here in Minnesota," he said. "We live in an amazing place."