Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
for my own sake and because sometimes, she said, dying people are still listening when
they can no longer speak.
So I told Ben I'd miss him, that he'd soon be more comfortable; I barely choked out
that he'd been an inspiring teacher and fine biologist, a great friend. He neither moved
nor spoke again, and by midafternoon his breathing was slow and shallow. At one point
I left for an hour or so, drove to Bolsa Chica Wetlands, and took comfort in the brown
pelicans flying over his favorite local spot. Ben died at about five that afternoon while
Sue and I were out for a snack, as if in one last stubborn act of privacy he'd waited until
we left to pass on. Within a month she shipped me his ashes in a plastic box, bagged in
blue velvet.
Ben left me this list of “Some of my favorites” on a computer disk: “I love the music
of Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, Neil Young, Ten Thousand Maniacs, Eric Clapton, and
Don Henley; the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe and Vincent van Gogh; and the words of
Robinson Jeffers, David Quammen, John McPhee, and Barry Lopez. I love soapberries
collected in the fall and back-lit, really weathered wood, green-glass insulators that are
old enough to have a patina, the smell of wet creosote bushes, the colors of a madrone,
the antics of desert iguanas, everything about gray-banded kingsnakes, the fire-pit at
Nepenthe, the cathedral at Chartres, the zócalo at San Miguel de Allende, the Study
Butte store in Big Bend, and the desert, any desert.” Ben loved his students and col-
leagues, too, the more so for their support during his illnesses. After his death Chapman
established an undergraduate biology prize in honor of him and Erle.
We spread some of Ben's ashes in Big Bend National Park that next summer, in the very
heart of alterna country. Starting from a midelevation trailhead in the Chisos Moun-
tains, Kelly and I hiked for about an hour and a half, first in fairly open country and
then down an ever-narrowing and more deeply shaded canyon. From time to time we
crossed a small creek that flowed beside the path and I daydreamed about Trans-Pecos
reptiles that Ben especially liked—the Texas alligator lizards that fascinated us both and
of course his beloved gray-banded kingsnakes. A few yards beyond one last trail bend
we reached a towering cleft called The Window, its rocky frame splashed in late-after-
noon sunlight and opening to an unseen cascade.
The stream was clear and cool between dappled cliff walls. As a leaf floated past
my ankles and disappeared, I wondered if going over the edge would prove fatal and
anchored my toes on the rocky bottom. Insects chirped and water burbled while I stared
at the open plastic canister. After a few minutes I tossed its flocculent contents toward
the Window and for an instant they hung like some magically suspended clot; then a
breeze swept down the ravine, and perhaps I only imagined the faint smack as thou-
sands of glinting flakes and bone chips burst outward, as if an expanding tan nebula had
morphed into cascading fireworks against immaculate blue sky. Momentarily stunned,
with my shoulders sagging, I began sobbing into my hands. Walking out, we spotted a
Great Plains skink basking on a rock, and that night, over Mexican food in nearby Ter-
lingua, we tilted cold beers in honor of Ben and the glories of Trans-Pecos Texas. Long
may they mingle.
A week later we set out with Dave Hardy for Silver Peak, on a high flank of the Chir-
icahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona, carrying another pint of Ben. The three of us
Search WWH ::

Custom Search