A Trail. July, 2020

The trail leads on
Invisible after only a handful of yards
Turning lazily through the oak and hickory trees that 
Stand on this plot of north Alabama land

With the sun still below the tops of the trees
It’s an almost cool time of the morning
The July heat will come later this day
But for now we enjoy the morning shade

I look up to see fruit clusters
Pointing skyward from the branches
Of a stand of staghorn sumac
Burnt orange in anticipation of the crimson to come

Our grandchildren run ahead in search of their future
While my wife and I enjoy the company of their mother
With the world aflame beyond these trees
We live in and for the moment

And at this time, it is enough

Knock, Knock: It’s a Persimmon

It’s funny how little it takes to trigger a memory.  One little event, and a whole lot of recollections.  I love it.

My wife and I were out hiking early this past Sunday morning.  I was checking out a trail where I’m soon going to be leading a kids’ hike.  I haven’t been there in a while, and I like to prepare by checking out the lay of the land so I’m not just winging it.

As we started, I saw the leaves of a tree that I recognized but couldn’t identify.  The name was right there, floating around my brain, but just out of reach.  As we walked, I saw that type of tree a few more times, but just couldn’t figure it out.  I snapped a few pictures, intending to look it up when I got back home.

We were more than half-way through the trail when I saw the leaves yet again, but this time on a mature tree.  Mature enough to have recognizable bark.  Recognizable bark that instantly told me the once-elusive name of that tree: It was a persimmon. 

If Sunday’s hike was a movie, the landscape would have started to swirl around me, the wind would have whipped up, the sky would have darkened, and then everything would have been bathed in cloud-filtered sunlight.  Oh, and it would have been a lot cooler.  February cool, instead of July hot.  I would have left where I was standing on a trail just south of Huntsville and been taken back to Lake Guntersville State Park some nine years earlier.

Nine years earlier, when I wasn’t doing things like preparing to lead a kids’ hike.  Nine years earlier, when I wasn’t involved with environmental education at all.

So, to back up just a little bit further than nine years, this story all started with an email.  It was one of those “all employee” emails that move around a school district, and this one caught my eye because it actually interested me.  It was giving information about the annual conference of the Environmental Education Association of Alabama (EEAA).  Couldn’t say I’d ever heard of such an organization, but I was curious.  Truthfully, I was intrigued because it was an opportunity to go to a conference that I actually had a shot at attending, given that our school had just started an outdoor classroom.

A few exchanged emails, a bit of paperwork, a purchase order, and three of my friends–I mean, fellow teachers–and I were on our way.

Now, none of us had ever been to something like this, and we didn’t know what to expect.  Environmental education…what was that?  It was a three-day conference, and on the second day I learned what a persimmon tree looked like, but that wasn’t the memory that made me smile this past Sunday.  Nope, it was the first evening that came flooding back to me.  The persimmon tree was just the trigger.

We had pulled into the lodge parking lot sometime around late afternoon, and while there were signs directing us to the registration area, we still had that “not sure what’s going on” look about us.  As would be expected, a few inquiries took us to the registration table.  We were given a warm welcome, we got settled into our rooms, and soon we were seated in a largish conference room with 80 or so other people.

The four of us sat off to the side, a little more than half-way back from the front.  Not quite the back pew, but you get the idea.  The speaker, whose name escapes me, was giving a presentation on a research expedition in which he had recently taken part.  The group was searching the swamps of Louisiana near the Gulf Coast, looking for signs of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

As a quick aside, the last verified sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker was in the 1940s.  The bird has a distinct knock, however, and while there hasn’t been a sighting in decades, there have been enough “hearings” that they’ve not yet been declared extinct.

The knock–two quick raps–is what got the ball rolling that night.  Two quick raps.  Now, the ivory-billed woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers in the world at around 20 inches long with a 30 inch wingspan, so those are two substantial knocks.

Go ahead, try it: Two hard knocks on whatever wood is available.  I’ll wait. 

That’s what everyone wanted to do that night. They wanted to try it, and they did. 

So, the four of us were sitting there, surrounded by the growing sounds of people knocking on their tables.  Then it got better, as folks started comparing the knocking of the ivory-billed woodpecker to other species. We heard the rapid, longer, steady pattern of the pileated woodpecker and the slower, shorter pattern of the small downy woodpecker.  We heard the Morse code of the yellow bellied sapsucker and the rapid-fire machine gun of the hairy woodpecker.

By now, the speaker had both lost the audience and found a sidebar conversation himself.  Things quickly progressed to bird calls, songs, and other vocalizations.  

Folks, things were getting kinda scary for the four of us.  It was loud, and on the verge of growing frenetic.  All the while we were enjoying the ride and politely laughing along with many of the other participants.  Well, our laughter started politely and then grew more raucous along with everyone else’s.

That’s what I remembered as my mind settled on “persimmon” the other day.  That was my memory.  The knocking, the bird calls, and the laughter.

Since I started this story with preparing for a hike, the conference obviously made an impression.  Within a few years, two of the four of us were serving on the board of EEAA, and community environmental education is something I now do both personally and professionally as an elementary grade teacher.

Be careful: You never know where opening an email might lead.

If you’re curious, here’s a picture of the bark of a persimmon tree. You can probably see why I was able to recognize it.

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Common_Persimmon_Bark.jpg

Summer Haiku

Just a couple of poems. I’m sorry to say the first one is more of a memory.

Under the dark sky
Crickets sing the night away
Cacophonous joy

A nearly full moon
Lightens the mid-summer sky
Immutable hush

Taking Tests

An observation: Teachers, generally speaking, don’t like to take tests.

I am, of course, painting with a broad brush, but that’s pretty much so true, in my limited experience.  It’s our job–it’s my job–to teach and mold, then to assess.  “Assessment drives instruction,” and all that.  (I do believe that, by the way.)  We give formative assessments and summative assessments, and we can tell you our opinion about the differences between a “spot check,” a quiz, and a test.  We do formal and informal evaluations and put together qualitative and quantitative data.  We give tests.  It’s part of what we do.

But, again, generally speaking, we don’t like to take them.  Ahem.  Okay, I don’t like to take them.

The odd thing is, with most tests, I do well.  Multiple choice is preferred, because like so many other students I’m able to look at the options, eliminate a couple right off the bat, and make (more) sense of one of the remaining answers.  Essay questions aren’t too bad, either, because (according to some) my BS degree didn’t just mean Bachelor of Science.

Okay, this slice isn’t about testing, it’s about taking a test. Specifically, me taking a test.

I’ve been an elementary (PK-5) STEM coach for the last three years, and I’ll serve in that capacity again this upcoming year.  After that, though, I’m almost certain to go back into a general ed classroom.  That, by the way, is a good thing for me.  Hopefully, I’ll go back into a third-grade classroom, but I’m willing to give other grades a shot.  Anyway, I was recently given the opportunity to be part of a LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) cohort here in Alabama.  I’m all about some good professional development, and I’ve heard positive things about LETRS.

I did the registration thing, and a few days later received an email letting me know dates and times for my orientation webinar.  I signed up for a session that worked for me, and there I was last Friday, sitting in front of a computer, getting ready to learn.

My presenter was good: She delivered the information with a light-handed approach, added just the right amount of humor, and didn’t read her slides word-for-word.  There was that moment, though, when I could feel hundreds of teachers from all over the state being jolted–just a tiny bit–from their webinar haze when they heard the word “pretest.”

Say what?

Then, there it was again.  “Pretest.”  Then, she said words like “post test” and “check on learning.” I think she even tossed in, “demonstrate mastery.” Whoa.

So that’s the way you want to play it, eh?

To make it even better, the two-hour block of time we were asked to set aside for the webinar actually included the aforementioned pretest.  I was supposed to do it that day.

In retrospect, the situation was pretty funny (at the time, though, all I knew was I needed to take a test).  I mentioned my B.S. (the degree) earlier, but on Friday I was thinking about the fact that I was about to be assessed on my knowledge of teaching reading after having earned my master’s degree a few years back in, you guessed it, elementary reading.  No pressure.

And, it went okay.  I showed I had room for growth as a teacher, but I didn’t embarrass myself (sometimes the hardest tests are the ones where only you know your results).  I’m looking forward to this training, but don’t doubt that I’ll still clinch up just a little bit as I wrap up each lesson and unit with the assessments.  I can do this–I know I can.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers (https://twowritingteachers.org) for hosting the Slice of Life Story Challenge. If you’re a teacher who teaches writing (and, really, there aren’t many K-12 teachers who don’t in some capacity), you should check out the challenge and give it a shot!

Nursery Stroll

Walking through a nursery
   A nursery of plants
Is to stroll through the potential
   Of the future
The future of a different space

Each plant can be lifted
   Lifted from the pot
   Soil falling through your fingers
And placed into a new place
   A place, a void, a hole that was prepared
   Just for that plant

Walk the rows
Browse
Dream
See tomorrow

She Bought Mothballs

With any luck, I saved a life yesterday, all because I got there first.

Wow, when I put it that way, it sounds so cool.

Like a lot of people, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with social media these days.  I love the fun, happy stuff, but not so much the opinion stuff (that was the nicest way I could put it).  One of my least favorite types of post, especially if I get there after a bunch of people have commented, is the snake post.

Yes, the snake post.  As in, “OMG, I found a snake near my house.”

I get it.  I have fears, too, some irrational.  Heights is mine.  I’ll go up, I’ll look around, I’ll do what I want to do, but that doesn’t mean I won’t feel queasy while I’m doing it.  Fun fact about me: Standing on a 35-feet-tall tower makes me nauseous, but once I can hang off it on a rappelling rope, still more than 30 feet off the ground, I’m fine.  Adrenaline, I guess.

Snakes, though. The fight or flight thing, the cultural thing, the what-I-learned-in-church thing, and even the “did you see the size of that thing” thing: I get it, but honestly, I sort of don’t.  Like I said, that’s not my fear.  For sake of discussion, though, I get it.

Back to me saving a life: I opened up Facebook early yesterday, and saw where a co-worker of mine posted that she had been surprised to walk out of her house to find “THE MOST GIGANTIC BLACK SNAKE!!”  Yep, two exclamation points.  It was that big!

I immediately looked at the comments, fearing the worst.  For some reason, people usually encourage the snake’s demise.  For some other reason, people often share pictures of snakes they’ve cut into pieces to show how they handle them.  Sigh.

But, there were no comments. Ha!  I was the first–she had just posted it!

Quickly I typed, “Good news: He’s harmless. 🙂 I understand not liking him, but he’s harmless. You could pick him up if you wanted to. You probably don’t, though.”  Upon a bit of further reflection, I added, “Actually, if it’s that big, it’s probably a she.”  Big black snakes here in north Alabama are usually grey rat snakes, but sometimes black racers.  Again, both harmless.

And it worked!  My friend’s reply was to hope “she” didn’t have any babies around, but she (my friend, not the snake)–and the commenters that followed–didn’t figuratively pile on the snake.  Whew!

I’m glad the snake made it, and I’m glad my friend was okay after her experience.  Most of the snakes we encounter in my area are non-venomous and harmless to people.  Mice, voles, and rats though?  They don’t much care for the snakes, and that’s fine with me.

Feathers

I found two flight feathers
in the mew this morning
Primaries, both from the left wing

The book says it doesn’t work that way
There’s a genetic sequence involved
There’s an order of things

Clearly

Someone didn’t read the book


Note: I’m a volunteer with RISE Raptor Project, a conservation organization which works with a variety of birds of prey. More information on the organization can be found here: http://riseraptor.org/

I Just Needed a Nap

As it turned out, I just needed a nap.  Not even a full-blown sleeping nap, really, just a dozing nap.  That was easy.

I have a lot of hobbies and interests, and most of them cycle in out of my life over different periods of time.  Some, like writing, float back in every few days or weeks, others every few months, and some don’t come back around for a long time, even years.  One of my constants, though, is woodworking.  

“Woodworking” can be a lot of different things, depending on what my wife and I need or want it to be.  Sometimes it’s building the “catio” I wrote about a few weeks ago, and sometimes it’s gluing a chair back together.  On occasion it’s building a larger piece of furniture, and other times it’s cutting stakes so the tomatoes don’t fall over.

Recently, I built a bookshelf.  It was a fairly straightforward piece of furniture, standing about four feet tall and just a bit wider than that.  Lots of straight lines.  I wanted a wall mounted shelf to go on the wall above it, but I also wanted it to be a little bit different.  Not so many straight lines.

Here’s the thing: Most wooden furniture has a lot of straight lines for a reason, and that reason is they’re easy to cut.  Most saws are made to cut straight lines.  Even the finest furniture has a lot of straight lines as well as joints that come together at 90 degrees.  For my shelf, though, I wanted some curves.  

A quick aside for the woodworkers and furniture fans in the crowd: I know that lots of furniture also has curves.  Just not my furniture.  See the above paragraph for the reason.  

So I wanted a curved front on my shelf, but wasn’t sure how to cut it.  I mean, I know several ways to do it (reading about woodworking is another hobby of mine), but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to do it.  Each way has pros and cons, and I just couldn’t decide which one I wanted to go with.  It would be exaggerating a bit to say I was overcome with indecision, but it was tough.  

So, I took a nap.

Not a full afternoon nap, but not a doze-in-the-chair nap, either.  On the bed, but not under the covers.  Drapes not fully drawn.  You get the picture.

I didn’t expect it, but in retrospect I should have.  Dozing in and out of sleep, I figured out the solution to my problem.  You know, like they do in the movies.  My subconscious mind and all that stuff.  It was, I must say, pretty cool.  

No, I didn’t spring out of bed, but it wasn’t too much longer before I headed down to the woodshop.  I won’t bore you with the details, but I will tell you the plan I realized during my epiphany worked as I thought it would.  My shelf isn’t done yet, but the curves are cut and things are looking good.  

And now I’m looking for another reason to take a nap.  Er, I mean, I’m looking for another problem to solve.

Understand

To experience a walk as one who dares
to stride in another’s stead
is to begin, but only to begin, to understand

You’ve not cried the tears
your heart has not been torn asunder
but you’ve chosen to walk in turn
where another—without choosing—must tread

Walk near with a heart ardent
Walk as one who dares

This poem was written as part of a challenge to end every line with a word containing only the letters found in a single word.  For this poem, the word is “understand.”

Fierce Eyes

The final time we handled him, we needed gloves.  That was a good sign; that was a very good sign.

As coincidence would have it, I was “in town” when I got a message from Curt, a friend who runs RISE Raptor Project, a small non-profit I work with here in North Alabama.   

Someone found what they thought was a red-tailed hawk.  It was on the ground alive, but not moving.  Would we come and get it?

RISE provides conservation education as we teach about our birds in public presentations, oftentimes in schools and libraries in the area, but also at a variety of other events.  We’re not a rehab organization, but we occasionally get calls when folks find large birds in distress.  “Don’t try this at home,” definitely applies when you’re working with the talons and beaks found on a bird of prey.

Those talons and beak were at the forefront of my mind when I was contacted.  Normally, birds on the ground are approached with heavy leather gloves and something like a large towel.  I had neither, and was dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals.  I did, however, have two small towels which happened to be in the car.  The bird was two miles south of where I was, and my gloves were 10 miles north, definitely out of town.  I headed south.

The good and bad news, I learned during a call as I was driving, was that the bird was apparently already in a cardboard box.  It was good the capture wouldn’t even have to take place, but that the bird was put into a cardboard box by an untrained and inexperienced person indicated it had to be in pretty bad shape.

And it was.  

This story gets better, but when I found the bird, it was in a box that wasn’t even closed.  It was on its side, and the finder had placed a table cloth over it to keep the flies out.  The hawk–indeed, it was a juvenile red-tailed hawk–had its eyes closed, its wings tucked back, and its feet tucked up.  There was some apparent respiration, though, so I closed the box, returned the table cloth, and put the box into the back of my car.

Okay, here’s the deal: When a bird, especially a bird of prey, is in need of “rescue,” it’s usually bad.  As often as not, in my experience (albeit only a few years), the bird simply isn’t going to make it.  I hate that, but it’s the truth.  Now, that doesn’t mean they won’t make it–they sometimes do–but that didn’t look to be the case at the time.  

Before I left the neighborhood where I picked him up, I wanted to make sure the bird was upright, so I reached in the box to rearrange the towels and prop him (probably a him, based on the size) up.

Though I didn’t know at the time, the bird was experiencing paralysis caused by something unknown, probably an ingested poison.  He couldn’t move, his wings and those formidable talons remained tucked, but imagine my thrill as his eye suddenly opened at my touch.  Cloud grey with streaks of black, the iris shrunk as the pupil quickly expanded to bring my face into focus from two feet away.  His body didn’t move, but I did, and it was a good few seconds before I knew I could get him settled.

After getting him into what I thought was a good position, I headed back to see what we could do for him.  Our treatment capability is limited, so we simply gave him fluids (pedialyte with a nutrient powder mixed in) a few times, and kept him in a safe place until we could transport him the next day.  As with all animals, hydration is more important than feeding, and his mutes (excrement) showed that he’d been eating well.

The first time we handled him, he was unable to move his legs or wings.  His situation didn’t require much in the way of protective equipment to handle him.  But by the next day he was starting to gain some mobility, and when I got him on his way to the Southeastern Raptor Center at Auburn University he could move enough to warrant gloves–a positive sign.

The story isn’t over, but our part is finished.  With a lot of luck, that hawk will once again take its place in the skies of Alabama.

Coda: The situation doesn’t warrant testing to determine what specifically caused this bird’s poisoning.  As of now, the diagnosis is, “suspected toxin exposure.”  Most likely, in my opinion, he ate a small mammal (mouse or rat) that had ingested poisoned bait.  No one likes unwanted rodents, but if you find yourself with that problem, please consider using traps instead of poison.  Secondary exposure to rodent poison kills many birds of prey each year.

Here are some links you might find interesting: RISE Raptor project at http://riseraptor.org and the Southeastern Raptor Center at https://www.vetmed.auburn.edu/raptor/