THIS BOOK IS ABOUT STUDYING NATURE , incorporating one's findings into broader biological and
societal concerns, and reaping the emotional rewards of those activities. Doing natural
history involves people—as I'll show later, observing and recording are primal aspects of
human natural history—and however much solitude beckons, we're no more truly separ-
ate from others than from our surroundings. Friends with whom we've shared failures
and triumphs loom in our hearts, and perhaps they're all the more precious to vagabonds
like me, for whom so few have spanned life's full arc. The mundane bonds of friendship,
like those of family, weave together everything from laughter and tears to memories and
dreams of the future, yet too often friends are taken for granted until a good one is lost.
Then they gain bittersweet focus; their value feels inestimably high and their loss insur-
mountable. Friendships, we learn, require nourishment, but they repay the effort many-
fold, even after death intervenes.
I first met Ben Dial at an amateur naturalists' gathering in 1962, as he finished high
school in Dallas and I began my senior year in Fort Worth. We were pals from those early
days in the John K. Strecker Herpetological Society (named for a pioneer Texas field bio-
logist), through lots of thick and a fair amount of thin, both of us enthralled by animals
and music. In 1998 Ben learned that his thyroid cancer, facilitated by years of immun-
osuppressant drugs, had metastasized, and he died within three months, accompanied
on his last day by another friend, a hospice nurse, and me. His legacy is a respectable
body of research and thousands of inspired students, as well as an example for friends of
joy in the face of physical hardships. He often said the decade following his heart trans-
plant was his best, that after the operation he “always took time to smell the flowers.”
Now, having revisited some of Ben's favorite haunts and scattered his ashes, I see more
clearly how passion for life's diversity fueled his happiness.
Ben and I were teenage science nerds, with the then-requisite black-rimmed glasses
and burr haircuts, and our interests converged where eastern North American forests
give way to prairie and the arid Southwest. We memorized field notes in the Wrights'
Handbook of Frogs and Handbook of Snakes, quizzed each other from Conant's Field
Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, and took off searching for herps whenever time and
money allowed. 1 We were boundlessly happy exploring limestone bluffs and wooded rav-
ines on the Edwards Plateau, and more so the “mountain islands and desert seas,” as
Fred Gehlbach's topic on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands called the region from west of the