Along a trail in Huntley Meadows I spot them: two Eastern bluebirds—Sialia sialis, in the more elegant Latin—perched within a shrub, leisurely picking at the few barberries that still remain. Not wanting to scare them off, I stop and watch. If I were Iroquois, I might view this chance encounter as a good omen, or at least a hopeful one, for the people of that mighty confederation believed the call of a bluebird could ward off the power of Sawiskera, the spirit of winter, evil son of the Sky Woman. I am not Iroquois, nor even remotely American Indian—just a bastard mix of English, Scottish, Irish, German, and Swiss. Even so, the bluebirds are a welcome surprise on this cold winter day. Pleased, I raise my camera, focus the telephoto lens, and begin to photograph them.
And then something even more remarkable happens: amid a sudden chorus of high-pitched whistles and trilled bzeeee’s, a mob of about a half dozen other birds descends on the shrub. These are not bluebirds, nor any other species of bird that I recognize. Their feathers are a glossy, scintillating blend of brown, gray, and greenish-yellow. The insides of their wings are pure gray, with brilliant-red droplets on the outside, and the tips of their tail feathers are a bright yellow. Most striking of all, however, are the swept-back crests and rakish black masks that give them the rather delightful appearance of stylish bandits. The poor bluebirds suffer this intrusion in stiff silence—much to Sawiskera’s wicked delight, I can only imagine—while I hold the shutter-release down and my Nikon fires away, capturing vivid shots of these new birds in various attitudes of mid-flight.
After hurrying home, downloading the photos, and flipping through my Audubon field guide, I find a mugshot of the perpetrators in question. Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) of the waxwing family:
7”. Adult back and pointed crest brown; fawn-brown chest grades to yellow belly; wings gray, with waxy red tips on secondaries; black eye mask, edged in white. Rump and tail gray, with yellow tip. Usu. in flocks. VOICE Call: high thin zeee. HABITAT Woodland edges, gardens. RANGE Aug.-May: entire region; breeds erratically inland, mainly in mtns.
It is not the first time I have photographed a “new” species of bird, nor, I am certain, will it be the last. I am still new to birding, having only recently taken it up after a class at Huntley Meadows with my wife and daughter. Something about the hobby appealed to me that failed to excite as intense a passion in my wife, who was born and raised in China, or in our preteen, thoroughly American daughter at all. Partly I just enjoy being outside and always have, since childhood, when my playground was a forest that loomed over the back of our house in the outskirts of Green Bay, Wisconsin. And partly I just need the quiet time, away from people, the news, and my deskbound work as a speechwriter at the Patent and Trademark Office. But more than all that there is something I find genuinely thrilling about a discovery like this, of noticing an unusual bird for the first time and learning its proper name. Of adding something new to my knowledge of the world. Cedar waxwings. The name even has a peculiar charm to it.
* * *
There is nothing especially meadowlike about Huntley Meadows Park, where I first encountered the waxwings in early 2017, a couple of weeks after my forty-fifth birthday and a little less than two years after retiring from the Army National Guard, which allowed me to devote more time and energy to my hobbies and my family.
Aside from a few grassy clearings one might accurately describe as meadows, most of the park is a damp, tick-infested forest littered with rotting timber and spikey sweet gum balls. Close to fifteen hundred acres of densely packed beech, maple, oak, and the ubiquitous sweet gum, the park sits on a wet lowland in Virginia’s Hybla Valley, just south of Alexandria and Washington, D.C. Tens of thousands of years ago the valley was an ox bow of the ancient Potomac. Today, within the park, there is no distinctive terrain of any kind—just a few narrow streams like Dogue Creek and Barnyard Run. It would be easy to get disoriented and lost in these woods if one was to wander off the beaten path, as I often do in the winter months when the thick undergrowth has died away and I want to leave the trails behind. But for the occasional plastic bag, water bottle, or rusted can blown or washed in from the surrounding neighborhoods, it is also easy to forget that these fifteen hundred acres are surrounded by development: mostly suburban neighborhoods, with a landlocked Coast Guard facility on the west and a wearying line of strip malls just past the residential areas to the east.
Because our neighborhood sits along the park’s northern edge I can walk into it whenever I please, sometimes with my wife and daughter, but more often than not with just our dog, a little black-and-white terrier mix I call the Black Fox of Huntley Meadows but whose actual name is Cookie. These frequent hikes within the park take us, first, across the faded remnant of an old maintenance road long since abandoned to nature. The trees crowd in upon this track so tightly that, together, they form a kind of cathedral-shaped tunnel through the woods, the whole length of which is carpeted with dead branches and fallen trees. On occasion, when I opt to hike this road rather than delve deeper into the forest, toward the center of the park, I have been startled by a herd of deer bolting across the trail or a black rat snake slithering through the grass, or delighted by the furtive appearance of a red fox, which will inevitably pause to study me, as if assessing whether I am friend or foe, before slinking off, somewhat mollified. Because it lacks a name or a presence on any map now in circulation, I tend to think of this arboreal avenue, in honor of our late neighbor, as “Norma’s Road.”
* * *
Eulogized by her daughter Lisa as a “tiny woman with the heart of a lion and the spirit of a child,” Norma Doris Hoffman was born in Boston in 1925. A talented dancer from an early age, she helped support her family during the Great Depression by performing in the city’s Latin Quarter cabarets alongside celebrities like Milton Berle, a comedian, actor, and America’s first major television star. Norma’s skills caught the eye of at least one Broadway recruiter, who offered her a role, but Norma chose to marry instead and moved to the D.C. area with her husband Fred, who fought in the Second World War and worked for many years thereafter as a reporter for the Associated Press and later still as a spokesman for the Pentagon. Norma, meanwhile, went to work on Capitol Hill, first for Congressman Isidore Dollinger of New York and then for Congressman Christian Herter, who later served as Governor of Massachusetts and Secretary of State in the Eisenhower Administration. Norma managed Senator Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign in Alexandria in 1968 and, in 1970, the campaign of Ira Robinson, the first African-American elected to the Alexandria City Council since Reconstruction. Eventually Norma left the Hill to work for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, which gave her first-hand exposure to environmental protection issues.
Her family had only just moved to the house next door to ours, in the 1970s—though ours did not yet exist, nor were my wife and I more than toddlers at the time—when plans to build a highway through Huntley Meadows were gathering steam. To protect the park and its wildlife from the adverse impact that would have, Norma founded the Citizens Alliance to Save Huntley and enlisted the pro bono legal assistance of a prestigious law firm. It was the beginning of a decades-long battle under her leadership—involving hundreds of scientists, lawyers, and concerned citizens—that not only stopped the construction of the highway, along the exact same path I now call Norma’s Road, but generated a renewed focus and appreciation for the park and its value to the surrounding community.
“Have a happy life,” Norma told me more than once, with genuine sincerity—less a pleasantry than a benediction, if not a gentle command. It was how she ended every conversation with strangers; and in the five years we lived next to one another, beginning in 2012, I was always a stranger to her, someone who had entered her life past the point when she could still remember new names and faces, from what I assumed was the onset of a mild dementia that nevertheless failed to dim, in any way, her obvious, innate kindness. The first time we met, she looked me very earnestly in the eyes and asked me the kind of question by which she seemed to measure others: “Have you been to Huntley Meadows yet?”
At the time, ironically, and to my great regret, the answer was no.
* * *
There is a meandering trail that intersects Norma’s Road near where I usually enter the woods—the very same, in fact, upon which I encountered the waxwings. If it is a good day for birds I will hear and see the woodpeckers first as I wander along it, the Black Fox running ahead of me with her nose low to the ground, treeing every squirrel and chasing after every deer. Downey, red-headed, and red-bellied woodpeckers abound in these woods, flitting and chittering among the branches. At times I will hear the piercing, vaguely exotic ack, ack, ack, ack of a pileated woodpecker and see a black, white, and red flash swooping from one tree to the next, always on the move, often just beyond the reach of my camera. Once or twice I have even seen the more elusive northern flicker, there one moment and gone the next. That’s five species of woodpeckers alone in Huntley Meadows. Some days the staccato hammering of beak on wood is so intense and so prolific it sounds more like a military rifle range than a forest.
There are other birds, of course. In the first part of my walk I often see robins, white-throated sparrows, song sparrows, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and an occasional goldfinch, golden-crowned kinglet, warbler, hermit thrush, or yellowthroat. I have even seen Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, and red-shouldered hawks roosting in the branches above and caught fleeting glimpses of wild turkeys or pheasants darting off in the underbrush below. A few hundred meters south the trail ends at a T-intersection with a paved, mile-long track that cuts into the park from the South Kings Highway entrance. Where that track ends, at the center of Huntley Meadows, is a wide pond—first started by beavers in 1978, when they industriously dammed up Barnyard Run—with a half-mile boardwalk on the far side, several observation points, and more than two hundred species of birds that call the park home, for at least part of the year.
Here, great blue herons and great white egrets wade in the shallow water, spearing for fish and taking to the air with loud, ungraceful squawks that sound vaguely prehistoric, like modern-day pterodactyls. There are also green herons and belted kingfishers, perched on uprooted stumps or the tops of beaver lodges; sometimes the herons even strut along the park’s boardwalk, as if they, too, are just taking in the sights like any other two-legged visitor. Last year, while walking on the far side of the pond, just beyond the boardwalk’s end, I saw a juvenile, yellow-crowned night heron, a rare treat as equally surprising and delightful as the cedar waxwings were.
Waterfowl abound in this hidden wetland, including the ubiquitous Canadian geese that turn the boardwalk into foul minefields of excrement and the commonplace mallards one would naturally expect anywhere there is fresh water. But I am always more interested in the less common species of waterfowl, most of which I never knew existed until encountering them for the first time at Huntley Meadows: northern pintails, northern shovelers, black ducks, coots, and my two personal favorites, for their beautiful colors and oddly shaped heads: hooded mergansers and wood ducks. The mergansers have a fan-shaped, collapsible crest that gives them an utterly unique appearance; as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology puts it, “Adult males are a sight to behold, with sharp black-and-white patterns set off by chestnut flanks.” Their praise of the wood duck is no less effusive: “The Wood Duck is one of the most stunningly pretty of all waterfowl. Males are iridescent chestnut and green, with ornate patterns on nearly every feather; the elegant females have a distinctive profile and delicate white pattern around the eye.” Not surprisingly, my Audubon field guide has a male wood duck on its cover.
This bewildering diversity of ducks, herons, woodpeckers, and other birds often leaves me contemplating, in awe, how little I really know or understand about avian wildlife. It’s not just that I am a newcomer to birding; it wasn’t until my late thirties, well after a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in politics and government, that I began to develop any interest at all in the sciences. Consequently, with such a weak grasp of biology, I struggle with questions like how a male wood duck can end up with such brilliant colors and patterns. As best I can tell, from what little I have picked up over the years, a colorful bird like the male wood duck looks the way it does because of bird ancestors beyond count, over many millennia, acting on instincts beyond their understanding.
During one investigation of this kind, a line in a National Geographic article jumps out at me. I lean forward and read it again, several times. It mentions Archaeopteryx, the “first wing” or “first bird,” an avian ancestor that lived more than 125 million years ago, in the Late Jurassic, in what is today southern Germany—but at the time was a string of islands in a shallow, tropical sea, much closer to the equator than it is now. These few facts alone give me duly humbled pause. But I press on with another quick search: the oldest known owl fossils are 70-80 million years old. And a final search: Homo sapiens have only existed for about 300,000 years, with evolutionary origins going as far back as 16 million years. My own math: the earliest ancestors of humans came more than a hundred million years after the “first bird” and more than fifty-five million years after the first owls.
Seventy million. Eighty million. One hundred and twenty-five million. As years, these numbers are beyond my capacity to fathom. Contemplating the enormity of it all—the immense stretch of time and diversity of life on Earth that preceded me, to say nothing of the infinite universe beyond our planet, with hundreds of billions of galaxies as big as ours or larger—is like staring into an abyss that stares back until I flinch and shrink away, almost regretting that I ever looked in the first place. At times it’s enough to make me feel like the psalmist who, I imagine, raised his eyes to the heavens and rent his garments in despair as he cried, “What is man?”
What, indeed. Quietly, in a daze, I close my laptop and retire for the night.
* * *
Concealed within the depths of Huntley Meadows, away from the trails, are relics of a more recent past: bundles of old fence, rusted axles, and long berms and ditches that run for hundreds of yards. These last were dug by one of the property’s earliest owners, or more precisely his slaves, to drain the land for the farming of corn, rye, wheat, and oats. George Mason first purchased the land between Dogue Creek and Little Hunting Creek in 1757. A member of Virginia’s wealthy planter class, in early 1776 he penned the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which inspired fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson—who decades later, as president, entertained the whimsical notion that Lewis and Clark might encounter live woolly mammoths or giant ground sloths in their great westward expedition—to plagiarize it for portions of the Declaration of Independence. Mason was also one of only three delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 who refused to sign the Constitution, in large part because it lacked a Bill of Rights. While this act of curmudgeonly defiance consigned him to less renown than the other leading men of his generation, his legacy endures in an eponymous state university in nearby Fairfax, where I study creative writing; his home at Gunston Hall, about a thirteen-mile drive south of Huntley Meadows; and to a lesser degree at Historic Huntley—a country house built by his grandson Thomson between 1825 and 1830, just uphill from what is now the park’s official entrance at the L intersection of Lockheed Boulevard and Harrison Lane.
The land remained in the Masons’ hands until the Civil War and thereafter through a series of other owners over the next century, including a rather colorful, if highly checkered character named Henry Woodhouse. Born Mario Terenzio Enrico Casalegno, he emigrated from Italy to the United States in 1904 and began his career in a New York restaurant, where in the course of a disagreement with the head chef he murdered him with a kitchen knife. After four years in prison Mario anglicized his name to Henry Woodhouse and began, for one reason or another, to write about aviation, a field then still in its infancy, and quickly established himself as an authority on the subject. From there his life continued on the kind of improbable trajectory that only seems plausible in a lurid novel or the United States of the early twentieth century. In 1915, Woodhouse co-founded the American Society of Aeronautic Engineering. During the First World War he served on committees dedicated to national defense. As his wealth and influence grew, he speculated in oil and real estate. In 1919, he began to purchase hundreds of acres of farmland in Hybla Valley, eventually totaling about two thousand, with dreams of building the largest airport in the world.
Woodhouse was enamored with dirigible airships, which he believed, along with many others at the time, to be the aircraft of the future. His plans for the airport progressed as far as the construction of three long runways, a few buildings, and a plywood entrance beneath a sign that read “George Washington Air Junction.” In 1929, Woodhouse even held a christening ceremony for the “air junction,” with descendants of the Washington family present; ultimately, however, the project failed. The Hindenberg disaster in 1937—in which a German passenger airship caught fire and was destroyed, with a loss of 36 lives, while attempting to dock with its mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey—marked the end of the airship era, and after a series of defaults, foreclosures, and lawsuits, the federal government acquired Woodhouse’s Hybla Valley property. Woodhouse himself went on to amass a collection of historical artifacts, documents, and signatures, some of which turned out to be his own forgeries, and spent most of his later years defending himself in lawsuits. He died in 1970, a couple of years before I was born.
Over the decades the government would find a variety of creative, if utilitarian purposes for Woodhouse’s former property. During the 1940s the Bureau of Public Roads used it to test asphalt surfaces. At the height of the Cold War, in the 1950s, it was the sight of an anti-aircraft battery manned by the Virginia National Guard. Between 1958 and 1971, the Navy cleared and drained the area the beavers would later turn into a pond and built two circular antenna fields, for classified radio communication research. At the end of their research the Navy abandoned the property and declared the land surplus. In 1975, as part of the Legacy of Parks Program, President Gerald Ford signed it over to the citizens of Fairfax County. Having anticipated the transfer for years, the county had already conducted a feasibility study and now proposed a four-lane highway to connect Lockheed Boulevard and South King’s Highway—the very same one that Norma defeated, and upon which I sometimes spot foxes, snakes, and deer while walking the dog.
* * *
None of this long, colorful history is ever far from my mind as I hike through the woods looking for birds, a camera hanging from my neck and the Black Fox of Huntley Meadows never far from sight, while above us the distant roar of jets coming and going from Reagan National Airport, about seven miles up the Potomac, reminds me of what this land might have become had Woodhouse prevailed. Several times last winter as I wandered along the faint berms and ditches left by Mason’s slaves, lost in such thoughts—my feet crunching against a thick carpet of twigs and dead, brittle leaves—tiny flakes of snow began to fall from a leaden sky.
There is something perfectly enchanting about the woods in a snowfall that is difficult to explain even if you have experienced it yourself, as I did many times in Wisconsin, as a child and young man. At an early age I came to know every square foot of that forest behind our house and could walk or run with confidence through it at any time of day or night, sometimes with friends, sometimes with just my dog, a dark red golden retriever named Patches, and sometimes just by myself. In those moments when it snowed, it felt as if the world beyond my immediate sight had simply dissolved and I were walking in a world unto itself, outside of time and space, cleansed and made new by the cold, white curtain of flakes descending upon and through the branches with a gentle hiss.
I have never experienced anything quite like it since leaving Wisconsin more than twenty years ago, but once or twice in Huntley Meadows I came close as a sudden, light flurry caught me by surprise. Invariably this triggered memories so vivid it would not have surprised me to see that my companion was no longer Cookie but Patches, or for us to emerge from the woods with a view of cornfields, Highway 57, and the frozen Bay of Green Bay in the distance. Instead, each time, I stumbled in this strange twilight state to the edge of the wide pond at the center of Huntley Meadows. There, on one such occasion, I beheld a great blue heron hunched atop a beaver lodge, with a coat of snow already settling upon its back. On another I spotted two juvenile bald eagles engaged in aerial combat over the pond, one of them clutching a fish in its talons.
My mind in these moments was adrift, reeling, untethered from time. I thought about the Paleoamerican nomads who hunted here ten thousand years before Christ, wondering if they ever paused to take in this same scene, or one very like it, and of the Doeg Indians long after them but well before the first white man ever set foot in this valley. I imagined the land later still, transformed into a treeless expanse of corn, rye, wheat, and oats, with Mason’s slaves toiling in the fields, as oblivious to the great gulf of history behind them and the vast unknown ahead as those earlier Americans had been. Could even Mason, who more than most had the luxury, time, and inclination, have foreseen the future, or possible futures, any more than we can discern ours? Could he imagine the asphalt roads, the anti-aircraft guns, the ghostly outline of zeppelins drifting through the air like ponderous, prehistoric fish—and at the center of it all, the dreams of a Henry Woodhouse and a Norma Hoffman all tangled together, like these two eagles, in some otherworldly struggle one might even call a dance—the outcome of which perhaps even the Sky Woman, in all her glory, could not foretell?
I cannot imagine that he did. As I watch the eagles disappear beyond the distant treetops it occurs to me, with startling clarity, that there is only this, the present. There is only ever the present. Everything else belongs to the realm of imagination: the future, the past, even my own memories of the people, places, and moments that were once so clear to me but are now slowly fading away, like the great, unspoiled wilderness that once stretched from here in every direction, teeming with wildlife, but which can never be wholly restored—only fragments of it, like this, restored to some semblance of what once was. Perhaps this is why I enjoy photographing what others, like my wife, are content merely to observe, through binoculars or their naked eyes; what I photograph I can never wholly forget. I can preserve the moment. I can even, I would like to imagine, stop time itself.
* * *
Near the official entrance to Huntley Meadows is a small modernist structure built in 1983, expanded in 1990, and now thoroughly enclosed by trees. A wooden sign outside reads, “Norma Hoffman Visitor Center.” Beaming, happy, surrounded by friends and family—and wearing a teal-colored sweater embroidered with the image of a male wood duck—Norma was present for the dedication ceremony in 2014, if no longer altogether there. Her decline over the next two and a half years was slow but inexorable. She passed away last June, just two weeks shy of 92. Her husband Fred survives, now in his late nineties, awaiting the inevitable moment when his time, too, must end.
It was in that same visitor center, a couple of summers ago, that my wife, daughter, and I took the amateur birding class, sponsored by a nonprofit called the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park. Co-founded by Norma in 1985 and “dedicated to the protection of Fairfax County’s premier wetland wildlife sanctuary”, it has since become a model for other Friends groups throughout the county, educating citizens about birds, wildlife, and the larger importance of wetlands.
The instructor introduced us to a variety of field guides and binoculars and then led us on a hike along the park’s boardwalk, during which we identified about thirty different species of birds, checking them off on a yellow trifold brochure as we went. Among the species of bird listed but not spotted by us that day were barred, great horned, and Eastern screech owls. I had never seen an owl in the wild that I could recall, but I had wanted to see and photograph one since not long after we moved to the neighborhood in early 2012. At night we could sometimes hear the distant, distinctive Who, who, who, who cooks for you? of the barred owl, coming from Huntley Meadows. One night in 2014, before a family trip to China, my wife and I awoke to a pair of them excitedly making the call in the giant maple tree just outside our bedroom window.
“Is it a bad sign?” asked my wife, who had been brooding about the long trip ahead of us, including more than twelve hours over the Pacific Ocean and a train ride from Beijing to the Shanxi Province, where she was from.
“No,” I said, peering through the dusty venetian blinds, hoping but ultimately failing to spot the moonlit silhouette of an owl on one of the branches. “They’re a good sign in this culture, not a bad one. A symbol of wisdom.” I said this less out of genuine conviction than to reassure my wife, though I was thinking of Greek mythology, in which the owl was the symbol of Athena, goddess of wisdom. The truth, of course, is more complicated. The owl as a symbol of knowledge or wisdom has taken root in many cultures around the world, including our own, but it often co-exists uneasily with older superstitions, like those in ancient China or medieval Europe, where the owl was viewed as an ill omen, a harbinger of calamity. Even among the Indians of North America the owl’s symbolism varied from tribe to tribe, often in equal extremes.
We survived our trip to China and back without calamity and close to three years passed, including our birding class at Huntley Meadows in 2016. Then, one evening early last year, as I was heading home from yet another hike in the park, I turned onto Norma’s Road and looked up, as if by instinct, toward the treetops. There, on the short, broken branch of a gnarled oak tree, lit in a warm glow by the setting sun, was a barred owl: “Strix varia. Dark brownish gray with paler spots above, heavily striped below; dark barring on upper chest; facial disk gray, ringed in black. Eyes brown…” Staring right at me. Utterly undisturbed by my presence, as if it had been waiting there since the dawn of time. The very picture of serenity; even, perhaps, of wisdom.
Hands trembling, I raised my camera, focused the lens, and began to photograph it.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Hooded Merganser. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Wood Duck. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.
- Freeman, Paul. Abandoned & Little Known Airfields : Virginia: Southeastern Fairfax County. Web. 4 Dec. 2017.
- Friends of Historic Huntley. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.
- Friends of Huntley Meadows, Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.
- National Audubon Society. Field Guide to the Mid-Atlantic States, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
- Scalley, Shirley. Huntley Meadows Park: A Little History, http://www.historygems.com. Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.
- Wikipedia, Henry Woodhouse (forger). Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.
- On the Wing: A Photographic Journey of John’s First Year of Birding, 2006, page 102.
- Norma Hoffman Obituary, published in The Washington Post June 16, 2017. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.
 So named after the Doeg, an Algonquian-speaking people that once lived in what is now Maryland and Virginia.
 The Ten Amendments we now know as the Bill of Rights were passed by the First Congress under the leadership of James Madison, in large part to mollify anti-Federalist critics like George Mason.
 In addition to her crusade against the highway through Huntley Meadows, Norma also organized a successful effort to get the Fairfax County Park Authority to acquire Historic Huntley, which was then in neglect and disrepair. Now open to the public, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Virginia Landmarks Register, and the Fairfax County Historic House Inventory.
 So named, according to some sources, because at least some of the land once belonged to George Washington. This is possible, as Washington and Mason were neighbors and one may have sold the land to the other. It is also possible that Woodhouse simply chose the name because Washington was by far the more famous of the two and lived close enough, in his time, to merit the honor; Mount Vernon is almost half as close to Hybla Valley as Mason’s Gunston Hall.
Credit for Photos: Eric Atkisson