Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
Tracks and Shadows
A TIMELY OLD QUOTE SIDLES around the two entwined themes of this topic, my eccentric med-
itation on natural history. Writing from 1849 about Sierra Nevada streams devastated by
gold miners, journalist Bayard Taylor likened nature to “a princess, fallen into the hands
of robbers, who cut of her fingers for the sake of the jewels she wears.” 1 His brutal im-
agery frames a modern dilemma, because although many people believe animals relocate
when their habitats are destroyed, most organisms have nowhere to go. They will die
rather than move. Worse yet, these losses are usually unseen and writ large all over the
world, so we truly are thieves, pillaging the future. My first theme, coming to grips with
this predicament, challenges everyone who cares about biodiversity—even if the effort to
clarify what we want turns out to be a philosophical snake in the grass, more nuanced
and elusive than I long supposed.
Taylor's slashing tone also resonates with a second theme, the twists and turns of my
personal quest for wildness. Early on, as a curious youngster with rural grandparents,
I discovered the seductive joys of nature study. From horned lizards and livestock on a
Texas farm to elephants and lions in zoos, I watched and wondered. How can they eat
only ants or hay or meat? Why do cow patties look different from horse dung, and do in-
sects poop? I picked up a box turtle, peered into scarlet eyes as the head craned out, and
asked my mother, “Where are the ears?” In a child's naive but earnest way, I yearned to
reveal their secrets, and later, as I read and traveled widely, grander questions caught
my attention: Why are some animals similar and others different? Why are there so many
species in the tropics? And as the human population climbs on past seven billion, will fu-
ture generations still marvel at nature?
There has followed a lifetime of chasing serpents, mostly real but occasionally meta-
phorical. From earliest memories until age thirteen, I aspired to be a cowboy or an ex-
plorer. Then I met a zoology professor and vowed to become an academic. Soon I joined
several organizations for herpetologists—folks interested in amphibians and reptiles, in-
formally called herpers—and began publishing in their journals, obsessed with biology. In
college, because my late-blooming, all-consuming social life required cash, I hired on at
a local funeral parlor as a mortician's assistant and ambulance driver. Boy Scout training
and vague notions of what the job would entail were my only qualifications, but I relished
the excitement. It was only natural, then, that after graduation, having barely managed
passing grades as a biology major, I would enlist as an army medic.
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