Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
where, in 1854, army surgeon Caleb Kennerly caught the “large lizzard in bushes” that
a Smithsonian zoologist used as the type specimen of this species. 35
Pooch didn't seem inclined to speak beyond his knowledge, so with the northernmost
distribution of a favorite tropical serpent in mind, I asked if he'd seen any big black
snakes on the ranch. The cowboy finished a long swig, and I ducked as his massive arms
swept wide for emphasis. “We catch sight of a fourteen-footer every month or so, real
shiny like, seems to be workin' the banks of the creek,” he exclaimed, “and I'm here
to tell you . . . whut's yore name? Oh, yeah, Harry . . . man, that's a big feller!” Indigo
snakes reach eight feet in Texas, I thought to myself, and ten in Guatemala, but fourteen
feet strained credulity. 36 Nonetheless, at Baker's Crossing I'd seen Rio Grande leopard
frogs and blotched watersnakes like those an indigo would hunt, and I had sightings
from elsewhere in the Devil's River drainage. Under the circumstances there was no
doubt about the monstrous serpent's identification, and I wasn't inclined to challenge
this guy over anything having to do with size. Besides, his response to my next question
had us grinning and clinking our longnecks in a toast.
“Course we didn't kill that big black dude, hell, why would we?” Pooch scoffed. “Our
boss won't even let us shoot them ol' diamond-backed rattlers anymore, except when
they're right around the foreman's house, 'cause he's got kids and all.”
“Here's to fourteen-foot indigos,” I replied, raising my bottle, “and cowboys who let
those ol' diamondbacks crawl on by.” Yes indeed, simple pleasures and small triumphs.
I am so fortunate to have a job studying nature, and with more than half my years
spent, here's an answer for those who ask what it all means. I believe that like all liv-
ing things, we are for a while and then we aren't, that Camus was right: life is how we
find it and what we make of it. Each of us leaves behind tracks and shadows, but inevit-
ably they fade and we end up one with the water and the rocks. Rather than push that
view on others, though, I urge students to engage the wild in whatever form they find
it, contemplating other realities against which to measure themselves. My own travels
have entailed terror, pain, and death, but I've also relished the fragrance of drenched
rainforest soil, been dazzled by silhouettes on desert canyon walls. I've marveled at big
cats and rattlesnakes up close and personal, welcomed the sheltering solace of friends
and loved ones; I've watched curious children peer into a bird's nest and beam with in-
nocent delight. And along the way I've discovered beauty, mystery, and always, sooner
or later, hope.
May of 2012 has me back on the Hillises' Double Helix Ranch, and what a difference
rain makes! Gray corpses of three-hundred-year-old oaks dot ridgetops, testimony to
last year's devastating drought, but healthy trees still populate slopes and valleys.
Where everything was dead brown, now swaths of yellow rock coreopsis flowers out-
shine lime-green groundcover, their brilliant monotones punctuated by crimson fire-
wheels, lavender skeleton-plants, and a few bluebonnets left over from April's peak. The
tiniest streambeds are burbling, and both ponds are full. We walk miles and spot none
of the wild pigs that earlier wreaked such havoc, suppose they've scattered with water
more widely available, and enjoy watching Cinco de Mayo, the new herd bull, tending
his cows and calves. Several whitetails bound off, plump and tasty looking, and the ver-
million flycatchers and black-chinned hummingbirds are perky as ever. Best of all, given
David's worries that many herps have perished from lack of moisture, we find five spe-
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