Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
During my twenties I helped hundreds of ill and injured people, as well as watched
a dozen or so die from shootings, stabbings, and accidents. I stitched up autopsied bod-
ies, was bitten by an epileptic and squirted by severed arteries, had an assailant turn
on me with a knife and listened uneasily to nearby gunfire. One night I tried to save a
toddler with an allergic drug reaction, and forty-five years later, defenses softened by a
good cabernet, I still suffer the agony in her mother's screams. There were happy end-
ings, too—just days after that little girl died I placed a squirming newborn at the breast
of another young woman. Through it all, field biology was a respite, and by the time
thirty rolled around I was back on track for a Ph.D., studying snake evolution and ut-
terly clueless as to how those experiences might illuminate the issues with which this
topic is concerned. 2
A decade later and tenured at Berkeley, I'd lost an undergraduate advisor and a lover
to murders, a heart attack had dropped my father, and several friends had died way too
young. Their deaths provoked sensations of choking on explosions and desperate grap-
pling, as if I might strangle reality back to the future, and at times these people seemed
oddly still present, like phantoms of amputated limbs. Personal frailty intruded too, dur-
ing those middle years, in episodes I'd gladly never repeat. Some were exhilarating yet
over so fast they remained emotionally obscure, as when a high-speed collision spun
our pickup truck through the rainy night into an Arizona pasture, or my foot bumped a
Central American bushmaster, jolting the giant viper and me into mutually favorable de-
fensive responses. Other threats loomed more ominous with every endless minute, like
when we sat in speechless terror while our Aeroperú jet, one engine streaming flames,
circled back to Lima, or were confronted by angry, armed men in Uganda.
Little wonder, given those brushes with mortality, that desert writer Ed Abbey's ad-
monition to “throw metaphysics to the dogs, I never heard a mountain lion bawling over
the fate of his soul” beckons like a Buddhist koan. 3 And perhaps it's not surprising that
natural-born killers inspired me beyond scientific justification, as if confronting their
deadly essence might solve more private riddles. The upshot has been rewards akin to
those that motivate artists: animals are the focus of my teaching and research, but field-
work has also been contemplative, inspiring me to pay attention and live more fully. The
practice of natural history, I have learned, fosters peace of mind.
Predators are linked in our psyches with wildness, perhaps all the more so for those
who study them. In Costa Rica fleeting shadows and strange sounds intrigued me, and
because we found tracks and scats of jaguars I always hoped but never expected to see
one of those great hunters. Instead I poked through droppings and identified the drab
remnants of lives briefly met, puzzled over little cloven hooves of collared peccaries
and scythelike claws of three-toed sloths, the scaly feet and parchment-shelled eggs of
green iguanas. 4 Once a botanist led me to the bloody husk of a nine-banded armadillo,
all that was left of a fresh kill. And late at night, deep in the black woods, I thought about
skull-piercing canines and meat-rasping tongues, tried to imagine the prey's fine-tuned
senses and gut-twitching anxieties. Do those wild-pig relatives squeal in their final mo-
ments, and would the lizards know what hit them? Could I empathize with armadillos
while contending with an empty belly or hungry youngsters back in the den?
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