When hunting mushrooms, it’s easy to lose students in the woods. That’s why we practice the Cornell Hoot. Learning the Hoot is a highlight of the first Fall field trip. With students gathered round, I describe the exquisite art of collecting mushrooms, hand out crisp Cornell apples and maps, and demonstrate the Cornell Hoot: a rising “Ah-OOOT!” My students shuffle uncomfortably, but soon they can’t help but smile. Now we practice together Ah-OOT! Ah-OOOOT! Ah-OOOOOT! Even the shy ones can’t resist it. We do it again in unison, very loudly. A distinctive sound.
In the field, we use the Hoot as others might use a whistle. Turned around? just issue the Cornell Hoot. The rule is: when you hear the Hoot… Hoot back. That is all. The Hoot enables us to find each other. At the end of the expedition, those who’ve made it back to the vans issue a great mustering Hoot guaranteed to scare your pants off, or make you laugh. It is extra-pleasing if a Cornell Botany class is skulking in the woods nearby–how they must envy our hooty camaraderie; our chutzpah!
I’ve wondered where the Cornell Hoot came from. I learned it from my predecessor, Dick Korf. Imagine my tingling excitement when I encountered this passage in the 1903 travel diary of my great-great predecessor at Cornell, George Atkinson, who was visiting the Botanical Gardens at Kew, in England:
“As time for closing the gates came on I heard musical voices from different parts of the garden sing “all out, all out.” A custom very old, and now it is such a perfunctory call that one can scarcely distinguish the words. It often sounds more like “Ah- —-laio”
George F. Atkinson’s diary of his 1903 tour of Europe
What if Kew’s ‘All Out’ was the source of our Cornell Hoot? Atkinson brought it home from Kew, and it’s persisted over a century? Passed like a game of broken telephone from one Cornell mycologist to the next? Tantalizing.
How does one reconstruct a sound that hasn’t been heard for many decades? I contacted Kew Gardens, where a bemused historian confirmed the call was practiced as late as 1916. What did it sound like? We don’t know.
I tussled mightily with this, enlisting help from reference librarians, botanists, and British mycologists. (Paul Cannon said, “UK mycologists don’t generally hoot, though they may exclaim “I say!” or similar phrases when encountering a particularly special find.” Considerably more genteel, I thought, than the exclamations of certain North American Mycologists). I browsed books about Kew, and this charming question haunted my dreams.
Then I heard back from Dick Korf. He said “Oh, it’s the Cornell hoot now, is it?” And he told me it was entirely his own invention. Recent and local, not at all what I was thinking! It made me laugh out loud. But an enchanting story still. Here’s his tale:
It was when I was at Ringwood with one of my first class field trips, maybe in 1951, and noticed that all students had not returned. I thought it to be the loudest and most distinctive calls in my vocal repertoire. I am pretty sure it didn’t come from one of the many plays I did as an undergraduate and graduate student, learning to project my voice, even a whisper, to reach the back row in the theatre, which Professor Alexander Magnus Drummond demanded of us.
Professor Emeritus Richard P. Korf
Ringwood is a Cornell Preserve that is notoriously easy to get lost in. Once while I was picking up some Ringwood-bewitched students at the home of friendly neighbors, the neighbors told me the story of why it was called Ringwood. They said that in the early days, when the first growth forest there was being felled, the sound of axes rang in every direction, and even then lumberjacks lost their bearings there. There’s no useful topography to speak of, and sounds seem to come from nowhere, or everywhere. Despite all the hooting, I still lose students at Ringwood most years. Once I called state troopers to help with a search.
Sometimes lost students phone me on their cell phones, but since they are unable to tell me where they are, I can only reassure them, and give questionable advice on who to eat first. Unlike GPS devices and cell phones, the Cornell Hoot works quite reliably in deep woods and remote forests. It’s not as old as I thought it was, but nothing could make it less satisyfing to perform. I recommend it.
p.s. You can find Atkinson’s European travel diaries from 1903 and 1905 here.