One day in Grade 5, our teacher asked us, as an assignment, to bring in the leaf of a staghorn sumac for the next science class. We were studying plants. It was autumn, the beginning of the school year. This teacher was new to the school, and the assignment was kind of weird, much too interactive you could say.
Staghorn sumach – never seen it, never heard of it. Must be rare. Remember, in those days, there was no internet. Research was time-consuming and pretty inconvenient. Libraries had minimal hours. Plus, Happy Days was on that night. Were we getting marked for this? Not likely.
The next day, our teacher was more surprised than disappointed – not a single student had produced the designated leaf. A lecture followed.
Staghorn sumac is all around you, she told us. Open your eyes, she cried. Calm down, we thought. You’re losing your mind over these sumacs. The fruit are red and noticeable, she informed us, rusty fuzzy bobs. This time of year, the leaves are turning red too. Well, so are maple leaves, we thought. Why couldn’t she have asked for a maple leaf? You can’t miss them, she sighed. The shrubs actually look like miniature palms.
She was silent for a moment, debating whether to continue educating us or give up. She decided on the latter. Open your textbooks to page 26. Photosynthesis. . .
Then it was recess. We headed out to the pavement and played four square (a playground ball game, not the social networking site). As we smacked the ball from square to square, sweaty in our woolen kneesocks, I noticed bushes lining the fences surrounding us. Oh, crap. She couldn’t have been right. Tons of this sumac stuff, all over the place.
The bell rang. The other girls lined up in their uniforms to head back inside.
Meantime, I made a dash for the edge of the playground, stuck a hand through the wire, and touched one branch of a staghorn sumac. It was soft like felt. The fruit, or were they flowers – who could tell the difference – were obvious big hairy clumps. I snapped off a leaf, thinner and longer than a maple leaf, and hid it in my tunic pocket. Later, when no one was looking, I placed it on the teacher’s desk, like it was an apple. (Or was it another student who did that? My role in all of this is unclear.)
Many years later, and there is a meadow below our house where a grove of staghorn sumac grows. Just before dawn, I hear a rustling. I venture down below the fronds, and see that the ground is trampled. Who was there? Deer? It is peaceful in this place of spotty shade. A bird’s nest rests in the apex of branches. I smell bees. Miniature palm-like trees everywhere, boasting bright drupes, and no one notices them. Irrelevant decoration on the edge of a forest.
There must have been a time when this small tree was revered. At the very least, there must have been a time when people knew its name.
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