by P. Clay Sherrod
On June 27, 2020, Jim Ettman – at his request – took his last ride around his beloved Petit Jean Mountain from where he had lived and worked, taught and discovered, since 1978. During his final journey he was not able to see his cherished orchids, watch the silent flights of the butterflies he studied nor feel the essence of winds of love that he had developed for this natural world.
Jim had requested to his family that after he died from a long illness, he wanted one last swing around the mountain to celebrate what had become the backbone of the life of this gifted and in- credible man. And the driver from the funeral home graciously accommodated his wish.
To say that Jim Ettman was not “a talker” was like implying that he did not have an opinion; those who knew him laugh at both. In the classic sense of the word “orator,” the Webster Dictionary might mention Mr. Ettman; he was a strong defender of the protection of the beauty and resources of Arkansas’s Petit Jean Mountain and his voice was robust, strong, demanding for all to listen. Knowing Jim for nearly 50 years, I learned to listen to what he said; I knew I would al- ways leave wiser. But a room full of listeners would break into laughter, when the familiar “…. Jim be quiet and give other people a chance to talk!” would crack through the conversation from bis beloved wife and best friend Ruth.
As a teacher of thousands of children, the lay public, educators, industrial giants and scientists from across the world, he knew the skill of how to use the artistry of words, his voice and mesmerizing presentations.
The quirky and fun side of Ettman can be enjoyed through a brief summary of his snake exhibit that he was constructing for the state of Kentucky in the mid-1970’s. For the realistic exhibit, Jim would simply stop his vehicle during every road trip when he saw a dead snake on the road, take it to a taxidermist for proper mounting and add it to his growing collection for the eventual display.
But then, during a long trip with his children, came the Timber Rattler he decided to “collect” on the side of the road, stopping to pick it up as he had always done …. only this time the rattlesnake was not yet dead.
Alas, Jim did not have a native Timber Rattlesnake for the Kentucky collection, so he wrestled the snake still writhing and striking at him and and eventually overcame it. What do you do with a rattlesnake you just wrangled? Well, of course, he threw it in the open trunk, slammed the lid and then proceeded along his trip, not fully having rationalized of what he was going to do to get the snake out of the trunk once the family returned home. THAT was Jim Ettman: never pass up a good rattlesnake … which, by the way still is on exhibit in Kentucky.
When he lectured, Jim could paint the beauty of a pastel sunset with his words, each and every one carefully and randomly chosen descriptively to instill not just a vivid image, but a feeling of touch, smell and beauty of all things in such a way that listeners would never forget. His beautiful voice inflection and articulation of words at just the right moment, a sudden tiny pause of complete silence, captured us all, and his message was never lost: his artworks were instilled in our memories like the delicate brush strokes of his story paintings.
Moving to Arkansas from the Pine Mountain State Park in Kentucky at the request of then-new Petit Jean State Park Superintendent Jerry Scott who had heard him speak at a conference of parks the year before, Jim brought with him skills as a master naturalist, educator and researcher and all continued once settled on the mountain and throughout all of life.
He had begun research into the true nature of the legendary Hatfield and McCoy feud, only to learn that not only were both sides related to one-another, but Jim Ettman was a descendant from each family.
Jim was a prolific researcher and writer of things in the natural world, specializing in wild orchids, butterflies and moths, and in edible and medicinal wild plants – all subjects to which he lectured thousands of visitors to Petit Jean State Park, and wrote innumerable scientific papers.
In fact, still atop Jim Ettman’s office desk is his final publication of the identification of butterflies and moths of Arkansas, of which he independently discovered at least six. His notes on the species of orchids that he bad found in Arkansas sits next to that, and then there are all those video- tapes, slides, photographs, and lecture notes from his busy life as an educator and lecturer.
As he moved on in life and more and more people realized the unique presentation skills he possessed, Jim became a principal production specialist for major industries across the country, including Tyson Foods, utilizing his communication and graphics skills for training and outreach. Jim Ettman was always not just the teacher … he was the Master Teacher to thousands.
He was an artist who used the beauty of emphasis and inflection with his words to paint portraits of life and living situation far greater than any visual image can portray; his methods to captivate those who were fortunate enough to listen to this master were so great that they evoked visualizations of ancient people migrating, the flight of geese across a lake, or the sounds of hidden creatures of the dark nights of Petit Jean Mountain.
He would use those words, he would talk, and many times simply challenge his audience with “Don’t you see?” as if to compel us to close our eyes and relive his marvelous descriptions. And YES, we would see. If you listened… you would learn. And you would never forget Jim Ettman.