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.