Quercus

I think I’ve got a blackjack oak in my back yard, but I can’t be sure.  I’ve eliminated most of what I know it’s not, reducing the number of possibilities of what it is.  I know it’s an oak, and I believe it to be a red oak.  It’s still too young for acorns, so I’m just working with the leaves as young bark isn’t much help for me.  Digging around on the Internet, it looks like my tree might be the subspecies Quercus marilandica Münchhausen, commonly found in the western portion of the species’ range.  

That portion of the area, I’ve learned, is in Texas and Oklahoma.  Seriously, don’t trees read the field guides anymore? 

It’s more likely, I know, that I’m not correct with my tentative identification, and the trees, indeed, do their research.

Anyway, the tree.  It’s growing in the furthest reaches of my back yard, and, as I said earlier, it’s just a sapling.  Standing maybe 12 feet tall, it’s growing in heavy shade, so it’s not exactly rushing to add height.  

That’s okay, I suppose, because sometimes I think I don’t actually want it to be there, and I’ll most likely cut it down sometime soon. (“Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”)

The tree is growing beside a pecan sapling that’s growing beneath a silver maple that’s growing between a cherry and the 20-year-old pecan that we actually planted.  And those are just the trees.  There’s also an assortment of shrubs and vines (mostly Chinese Privet with some poison ivy tucked in for good measure) and forbs in and around everything.

The maple and the cherry are both around 10 years old, and those two trees will eventually be cut down as well.  Probably, that is…I haven’t done it yet, but probably.  Aside from the tallest pecan, the whole assemblage is growing amongst a cluster of trees and hedges in the yards of my neighbors behind and beside my own yard.

Arboriculturally, things are a mess back there, but I kind of like the mess because I’m coming to know it.  I sometimes feel the need to clean up that area, bringing it into a state of conformity with the rest of the yard, but I’m getting to know those trees and shrubs and vines and all their herbaceous little buddies.  I know most of their names, other than my rogue oak, and am learning their behaviors and growing patterns.  I’m coming to see them as individuals, just as I see them as part of the collective.  They are good, those plants.  It is good, that space. 

My yard is far from manicured, but it looks a lot like those of my neighbors.  That space, though, tucked in near the back fence, is the exception to the expanse that I “maintain.”  That space, with those trees, with those shrubs, and with everything else is a reminder that nature isn’t far behind any of my efforts to control my little slice of the world.  

I’m sure, if they could, the trees would snicker quietly (or guffaw loudly) at my use of the word “control.”

That space lets me step, however briefly, into a more natural world.  I go, I breathe, I rest my hand on the bole of the maple or cherry, and then – with just a few paces – I step back from the mystic.  I step back to where the grass is cut at the medium setting on my mower, and I can almost feel my pupils contracting in the sunlight.    

So it stays, that space, and my tree remains a dendrological mystery for now.  As October progresses, leaves will fall and my primary clues will be gone until spring.

That’s okay.  I can wait.

—–

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?” 

– Aldo Leopold

Heron

The sound was like that of a heavy blanket folded over a clothesline with the winds causing it not to flutter, not to flap, but to do something more, with its weight held nearly horizontal by the gale, threatening to pull the entire assemblage from the ground.

Since the rest of, well, everything around me was still and silent, the maelstrom caused me to involuntarily move into a crouch, my head spinning toward the sound while my body prepared to move away from it.

Ten feet to my right, a great blue heron emerged from the creek that ran some 5 feet below the surrounding land.  Boxed in with a downstream bridge, the steep banks, and upstream brush, the bird had no option but to rise vertically, its great wings beating the air with a surprising amount of power.  

It rose, and whether it was aware of me I do not know, though I suspect it was.  With what I knew to be the subtlest of adjustments to just a few muscles, it banked to its right and flew into the open field that lay beyond.  In the seconds it took for me to follow it around the surrounding hedge, it was out of sight, up and over the trees that bordered the tillage. 

Until that moment, I was enjoying a quiet walk at the base of a hill in northeast Alabama.  With the excitement past, I continued on my way, blessed by those few seconds of unexpected beauty and grace.

—–

For the other map geeks among us, I’ve shared a map and satellite view link below to show where I was. On the west side, I was just a few feet south of the bridge at the north end of the Bethel Creek Loop Trail.   If you’re ever in the neighborhood, it’s a great walk!

Land Trust Trail Map

Location on Google Maps

Haibun: Cardinal

The call is clear and pierces the silence and the soul. Loud and distinct, it leaves no doubt about the presence of the caller.  Authority and passion, precision and purity. Bold, bright messenger from the spirit world.  Dwelling in the east, it lives forever in the heart. 

Brilliant flash of red
Calling clear in the morning
Proclaiming the way

The College Experience

Sometimes – just sometimes – I wish I had The College Experience.  

As things happened, though, I didn’t.  I attended my first college class while deployed to Japan as a 20 year old Marine serving in a fighter-attack squadron.  I should put part of that last sentence in quotation marks, since I didn’t actually attend, as there weren’t actually class meetings.  Operational F-4 units are busy places, so the consensus was to just give everyone a “B” and call it good.  I sometimes wonder what macroeconomics is all about. 

Four years later I was taking night classes while stationed in Germany.  Everything was general studies, since I had no idea where I was going with my education.  

Weekend classes in Augusta, Georgia, a few years after that.  

Community college classes in Huntsville, Alabama preceded my undergraduate degree at 39 years old, earned at a university that had only a single dormitory on campus.  Everything shut down by 6:00pm, and on-campus alumni events took priority over those for students. 

My master’s degree?  Online. Go ‘Lopes!

So when I find myself being part of someone else’s College Experience, I often wonder what I missed.  That was this past weekend.  

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) is in the middle of its “Week of Welcome,” and the Land Trust was invited to take part in one of those freshman orientation “what is there to do in our community?” events.  

It was a good event, and for two hours my partner and I hosted a steady stream of brand new college students who were interested in what we had to offer.  

(Side note: We really did have a steady crowd.  The environment and outdoor recreation, I’m happy to say, is a thing right now with young people.)

It was a neat experience, talking with folks who have interests similar to mine (our table made it clear from a distance what we are all about), but with perspectives and experiences that are different. 

My favorite part?  I had twenty students sign up for our newsletter, and all of them checked the “I want to volunteer” box.  The future is looking good!

The Cardinal

To those not in the know, one of the stranger aspects of birding is how often a bird is “seen” by its vocalizations alone.  

“Wow, you saw a pileated woodpecker?” one might be asked.

“Yeah, up at the preserve . . . it sounded close!”

“Wait.  You mean you just heard it and didn’t see it?”

“Uh, yeah.”

– awkward pause –

Recently I had the opportunity to sit in the woods for two weeks at a Land Trust preserve just outside of Huntsville.  I was administering two camps, and, among other tasks, my job was to hold down the fort, staying at the pavilion while the campers and their hosts were out on the trail. 

Oh, darn.

Staying in one place in the woods isn’t something I do often, and I’ve never done it for the better part of two days, much less two weeks.  It was wonderful, mostly because of the birds.

The first day – within the first hour, actually – I caught the briefest glimpse of three birds moving through the trees.  No sound, just movement.  Larger than a songbird, but I had no idea what they were.

It wasn’t long, though, before I heard them, well out of sight.  They were calling for food, seemingly reminding the adult birds that they weren’t quite on their own yet.  Young Cooper’s hawks, based on their size.  They had the tails and wings of an accipiter, but were larger than a sharp-shinned hawk.

Over the course of the two weeks, I was aware of them almost constantly, and eventually saw them clearly as they moved through the trees overhead.  They weren’t the only raptors I heard, though, as red-tailed hawks screamed over the nearby valley and a barred owl hooted deep in the woods.  Albeit silently, vultures rode the winds rising from the hills.

But it was a cardinal that I’ll remember for a long time.

Cardinals aren’t especially uncommon here in north Alabama.  In fact, they’re a bird I see nearly every day.  What made this cardinal special, though, was how the kids came to see him.

I do a bird activity where I’ll ask a group to stand quietly with their eyes closed.  In preparation, I’ve asked two or three of the participants to keep their eyes open, and when I point to them simply say, “Hello.”  As each person speaks, I ask the group to try to identify the speaker.

It’s not a difficult activity, and the participants usually enjoy their success as they’re able to name each of those who talk.  The point, I say, is that each of us has a different voice.  We might say similar things, but we’ve learned how to identify one another based on the qualities of our vocalizations.

It’s the same with birds, more often than not.  They have different songs, but they also have different voices that we can learn to recognize.  I didn’t do that activity during the camp as a group, but there were a few times when I talked about it with some of the kids. 

And that cardinal?  Well, he was special to me because by the end of each week there were campers who would say, “Mr. Tim, the cardinal’s back!” without the need to actually see him.  They knew his voice, and that, to me, was something to celebrate.

Two Hundred Fifty Feet

250

The number was written in small letters, black ink, right next to the words, “Diamond Room” on the cave map carried by the naturalist walking with us.

Whether Sandy, the geologist leading our tour, needed that reminder or not, I wasn’t sure.  It was at that moment, though, in what is called the Diamond Room, that she told us we had 250 feet of limestone above our heads.  For me, standing over six feet tall, that rock started just inches above my upturned face.

And, apparently, went upwards for the better part of a hundred yards.

Lisa and I were at, er, under, Rickwood Caverns State Park some 75 miles south of our home near Huntsville, Alabama.  We were attending a teacher workshop which, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t very well attended.  On the bright side, though, the small group allowed us to ask as many questions as we wanted, and I had a lot, though most of them were related to the surface geology, now well above us.

Alabama is an incredible state regarding its biodiversity.  While we’re in the overall top five nation-wide, we’ve got more species of just about anything related to water, and that’s largely because of our geology. 

Different geology equals different water chemistry equals different aquatic life.  I’d love to say it’s as easy as that, but that would mean I could actually wrap my head around all of it.  The ground here – now below my feet as I’m writing this – is believed to have been formed some 300 million years ago when the continents were a totally different shape, and the land that is now Alabama was some 10 degrees south of the equator instead of 35 degrees north of it.  

North Alabama’s bedrock is primarily limestone, and it’s chock-full of aquatic fossils from its time as a shallow sea floor.  To see the same fossils I’ve collected on the surface as part of the ceiling above me was incredible.  

Nature – this creation – is amazing, and I can’t wait to learn something new every time I experience it.

—–

Coda: To be fair, it was the first weekend after school started here in the state.  If I was a classroom teacher, I wouldn’t have been there either.  

Are you Mr. Gels?

“Are you Mr. Gels?”

It was a Sunday evening, and my wife and I were sitting in a restaurant, enjoying a late dinner.  As coincidence would have it, the meal we were eating was paid for with an end-of-the-year student gift card, and I knew immediately the guy standing in front of me was student related as well.  

The “Mr. Gels” was sort of a big clue.

“I am, yes,” I said, rising to my feet.

He introduced himself, and I frantically flipped through my mental Rolodex of former students during the second or so before he told me his son’s name. Just as he was telling me, I actually found it, which was sort of amazing since most of the cards in that Rolodex were nearly blank.

I have a confession: I’m terrible at remembering student names.  I’m blessed with the ability to retain positive memories, and I remember snippets of conversations and interactions, but it’s rare that I remember a name from more than a year or two ago.  And when I come face to face with a former student?  Well, it doesn’t help that they don’t look like a third-grader any more!

“Wow, how’s he doing?” I asked, genuinely glad to hear of him.

“He’s doing really well,” he replied.  “He’s graduating early and heading off to college in the fall.  He’ll be staying with his grandparents while he goes to school.”

“That’s great, I’m really happy to hear that!”

A quick moment of uncomfortable quiet fell between us as he seemed to search for something to say.  We both stood there, my wife looking up at us politely.  I was about to ask what his son would be studying when dad changed the direction of the conversation.

“You know, your class was really a turning point for him.” 

Now it was my turn to seem to search for something to say.

He continued. “Third grade was when he found out he could do school.  After that, he started to do a lot better and really turned things around.”

I didn’t know how to reply to that, and I don’t remember what I eventually came up with.  He told me that his son is working nearby for the summer, in case I wanted to drop by and see him.  I hope to do just that.  We talked for just a few more minutes before he walked away and we returned to our meals. 

It was quite a while, I have to say, before that smile left my face.


An aside: While I’m still Mr. Gels, I suppose, I’m not “Mr. Gels” in a classroom anymore. I’ve retired and taken a position as the education director for the Land Trust of North Alabama. Change, they say, is inevitable.

A Hike to Remember

I have to say, I don’t remember the hill.  Yet, there it was, the trail dropping away from us at what seemed like a precipitous slope.  

Okay, the trail was an asphalt path at least ten feet wide, and the slope wasn’t really that steep, but it was still enough to give me pause.  It wasn’t, however, enough to give my dad pause.  

Off he went. 

Here’s the thing, though: The last time I walked this path near my parent’s house in Ohio, I was getting exercise during my extended stay for my father’s open heart surgery.  

And now here he was, walking down that path.  We didn’t go too far, and we didn’t go too fast, but he was walking it. 

It was a nice little hike, and I hope to do it again sometime soon. 

Let’s Go for a Walk

I’m always eager to see their feet. 

—–

I got out of my little truck, gathered my daypack and hiking stick, and headed toward the group that was – strangely enough, I still think – waiting for me.  

And from a distance, I glanced at their feet.

—–

March is a month of unpredictable weather in Alabama.  Within a span of hours, the weather can go from sunny and 70 degrees to snowy and 20, and that’s something that can happen more than once within a few weeks.  That day, however, this group of hikers and I were enjoying the highs: Low 70s, a slight breeze, and partly cloudy skies.  It was a beautiful day for a hike.

I’m a volunteer hike leader for the local land trust, and I had a group of about 15 folks who looked ready to go.  I’ve always enjoyed leading these events, and it’s always fun and interesting to see who’s in the party. 

Now, the system sort of ensures the group will be a good one.  Everyone who shows up is typically a Land Trust member since the hikes fill up shortly after newsletters go out; sign-ups don’t go public for a few days.  They’re also familiar with the types of trails we’re walking on, as most of our properties are, ahem, hilly and rocky.  Finally, they almost always enjoy being with a group, and as we move into the third year of a pandemic, it’s nice to be outside in the open where conversation and gathering is more comfortable.

All that said, it’s always with a bit of trepidation that I look at everyone’s feet, and this group’s feet were looking great: Nothing but hiking boots and solid walking shoes.  No carpet slippers, no flip flops, and no crocs.  Yessss!

We gathered and talked for a bit, renewed a few friendships (a major benefit of hiking with a group), and headed out.  The trail was wonderful, despite the 450+ feet of elevation gain, and the Falling Sink waterfall – probably the highlight of the trail – was gorgeous. I can’t wait until next month when we get to do it again!

Bethel Spring: What’s the Story?

Should It Be Celebrated?

“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” -Douglas MacArthur

I promise I’ll write a happy slice soon.  -Me

It’s March 5, 2022, and for a variety of reasons we’re once again “watching” a war on television and social media.  This morning I saw, for the first time, a video clip of what was most likely a Russian helicopter being shot down in Ukraine.  I watched it on the CNN website, but soon saw it begin to appear on Twitter.  

All of the tweets I saw were celebratory, with gif replies like one might see on a tweet announcing the win of a sports team.

An aircrew lost their lives in that video clip.  Two men or women aren’t going home to their families.  They died.  Maybe they were fighting for a cause they believed in, or maybe they were scared and fervently wished they were not there in the first place. It doesn’t matter – lives were lost.

I do not, of course, support the Russian aggression, but nor can I celebrate the loss of human life.  The job of a soldier is to sometimes take the life of another, but I don’t believe it needs to be celebrated like a touchdown or home run from sidelines thousands of miles away.

As an aside, I’m starting to not be so crazy about social media either.  

In other news, the daffodils in my front yard have opened. That’s something to smile about!

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