Biology Reference
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engers as well as human consumers of wild game. While David sets up a target, Tracy
sees an injured buck in the brush, which Greg summarily shoots but finds too damaged
by infection to save for meat. The deer was flailing when first spotted, and we're taken
aback by its nearly severed right front leg and shrunken muscles, leading us to wonder
whether the horrible wound resulted from some hunter's bad behavior. After knocking
off a few satisfactory shots at a paper bull's-eye, we're off to Cooper's BBQ in Llano for
dinner and then on to the Double Helix. We'll be joining up with conservation geneticist
Cody Edwards from George Mason University, a Hillis friend who'd grown up in rural
North Texas.
Our destination is near Pontotoc (a Chickasaw word for “land of hanging grapes”) in
the Hill Country, famous for picturesque old German towns, wildflower extravaganzas,
and deer hunting. David's ranch is rolling oak savanna, dissected by ravines and dotted
with Precambrian metamorphic outcrops. Several rivers drain the surrounding Edwards
Plateau and flow on through the Gulf Coastal Plain, favoring moisture-loving species in
this otherwise semiarid environment. The region is among the most biologically diverse
in North America. About sixty-five species of amphibians and reptiles inhabit the ranch,
spanning gray treefrogs and eastern box turtles to the more dry-adapted Couch's spade-
foot toads and western diamond-backed rattlesnakes. The Double Helix sits on an over-
lap zone for eastern and western spotted skunks, so its thirty-five species of mammals
include a textbook example of how the different breeding seasons of those two species
promote genetic divergence.
David and his sons built the ranch's first dwelling, a minimalistic contraption whose
dark-green scrap lumber and tin blend nicely with surrounding rock outcrops and fo-
liage. In the Chateau Vert—named by a visiting French Canadian biologist—one room is
used for cooking and eating, while another has two sets of bunk beds; together these
rooms could be squeezed into an average suburban kitchen. Amenities include propane
lantern and three-burner stove, rainwater reservoir, outhouse, and BBQ grill. A nearby
discarded appliance, so battered and bullet-riddled I fail to discern its identity, serves
as backstop for target practice. Cody's got the wood stove burning when we arrive, and
although others come and go, these four will be my core companions for the week.
As if the landscape weren't sufficiently uplifting, things are good socially too: in spite
of a half-dozen advanced degrees and our wide age range, no one seems out to prove
anything. Cody's a lanky cowboy, David and I are middle-aged mesomorphs, and Greg
and Tracy are a bit shorter—he looks like a trim wrestler, and she can't weigh a hundred
pounds soaking wet. Tracy and I are newbies, never having hunted big game before,
although two years ago she watched David kill a deer. My .30-30 has open sights (its
1894 design ejects spent cartridges upward, making scope mounting awkward), and the
tree stands favored here challenge my acrophobic comfort zone, but David cheerfully
indulges these limitations, adding that among the commonest causes of death for Texas
hunters is falling from their perches. Tracy, who will use one of David's scoped bolt-ac-
tion Rugers—longer shooting rifles than mine—seems up for anything.
Greg wakes us at 5:15 a.m. for coffee and cereal bars, so everyone can hike to well-sep-
arated hunting areas before first shooting light at 7. Dawn is breaking as I settle into
the brush-covered Chateau ground stand, around the upper end of a ravine from the
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