Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
Born-Again Predator
OF THOSE TWO FAVORITE CHILDHOOD topics mentioned in chapter 3, the inluence of Snakes of
the World is obvious, that of the other less so. 1 Stocky, Boy of West Texas recounted an
orphan herding cattle, bringing venison back to the campfire, and racing “horned frogs”
for pocket change—and as a kid I'd caught the rotund little iguana relatives that Grandpa
also called “frogs,” even built a scaled-down version of Stocky's sod house in our family
backyard. More than half a century passed, though, before I experienced other elements
of his pioneer life, and by then I'd written a dissertation on behavioral evolution, made a
career of studying nature, and begun promoting historical perspectives for ecology and
conservation. I'd struggled up and down the Inca Trail, carried a heavy pack into the Bar-
ranca del Cobre and barely made it out; I'd radio-tracked black-tailed rattlesnakes and
bushmasters, even grabbed that huge green anaconda by its tail in a swamp. My path,
safe to say, has been fairly wild by some standards, woefully tame by others.
At some point during those wanderings Robinson Jeffers's poem “The Answer” began
tugging on my psyche: “Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things,” he wrote,
“divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man apart from that, or else you will share
man's pitiful confusions, drown in despair when his days darken.” 2 Of course, we all
carry the legacies of Darwin's “descent with modification,” but environmentalists often
behave as if engaging Jeffers's “wholeness” is more an idyllic pastime than an imperat-
ive—Sierra Club founder John Muir even claimed never to have seen a drop of blood in
all his hiking, foreshadowing contemporary views of a benign great outdoors. 3 It's as if
by denying mortality we might inhabit a peaceable kingdom, and recent circumstances
let me ponder this very grownup dilemma while revisiting youthful fantasies. What does
it really mean, I'm asking, to be part of nature?
Before moving from Berkeley to Cornell, I'd acquired an old Winchester, like the rifle
Bronx Zoo explorer William Beebe might have used to kill a Burmese bandit, the same
model with which A Sand County Almanac 's Aldo Leopold had shot wild turkeys in the
Southwest and poet Gary Snyder would finish off hunter-injured game in his beloved Si-
erra Nevada. 4 So much for clichés about nature lovers, let alone Ivy League professors.
As 2009 wound down I headed back to the Lone Star State with my old carbine, to herd
longhorns and hunt white-tailed deer on David Hillis's Double Helix Ranch. My friend
was squabbling with his university's president over the football coach's two-million-dol-
lar raise, and I'd been offended by a colleague who equated learning kinds of organisms
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