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only fieldwork I did was when studying Mexican snakes and Panamanian iguanas. Then
in 1977, fresh out of graduate school, I declined a Smithsonian postdoctoral fellowship
to teach at Penn's vet school, only to discover I was ignorant of horse innards, student
interest in ethology was limited to unruly pets, and Philadelphia felt too eastern. The
next spring I interviewed for retiring M.V.Z. curator Robert Stebbins's position and in
August, fulfilling a childhood dream of becoming a herpetologist, moved to Berkeley. 3
My desert yearnings were all the more powerful for having been confined to build-
ings and forests for five years. Struggling up Appalachian gorges I'd found salamanders
galore but reptiles few and far between; blue sky appeared through foliage openings, as
if life were confined to deep concavities, but I craved space so far in all directions that
Earth's convexity was palpable. I just couldn't forget scraggly horizons, hinting of new
discoveries yet proclaiming, “Don't get cocky. Even the rocks aren't permanent.” I knew
that on broiling summer afternoons most of the Eagle Mountains' forty-five species of
reptiles would be hidden, as if ordered inside until visitors left. Deserts, it seemed,
offered a glimpse of life's secrets for those who looked hard enough, and luckily, I'd
soon be within an easy day's drive of one.
Serving on a job search committee during grad school paved my way to California—with
a detour in the wrong direction. Tennessee had advertised for a herpetological ecologist
and got some hundred applicants, a few of them blatantly inappropriate—“I study
ticks,” wrote one, “but like snakes”—and others without noteworthy accomplishments.
Of about twenty taken seriously, five interviewed, and Sandy Echternacht was hired
in time for me to TA his herpetology course. During the process I noticed how can-
didates' talents shaped perceptions of departmental needs—“Hey, this one could teach
biogeography!”—and concluded that my own success would depend on applying to lots
of places and consistently being among the top contenders. Above all, I realized that the
most promising applicants stood out for getting grants and publishing, not for where
they'd studied. That spring I tried for a dozen positions, had a couple of interviews, and
landed at Penn.
Months later I wasn't optimistic about escaping Philadelphia, because competition
for the Berkeley position was tough and others had stronger museum credentials. I'd
collected lots of specimens but didn't mainly describe variation and discover new spe-
cies, so I figured the interview would be merely a chance to meet people and see cool
herps. As it happened, after the usual formalities, I was sent on a class field trip, dur-
ing which the TA was to observe my teaching skills and report back to mammalogist
James Patton, chair of the search. Briones Regional Park teemed with animals known
to me only from topics and Henry Fitch's early papers, and I couldn't resist extolling
a southern alligator lizard's prehensile tail and soft-skinned side pleats. “Watch him
puff up,” I gushed. “Why else might something in bony scales expand? 'Food'? 'Eggs'?
Good answers!” I also persuaded a student to sniff the red, coiled tail of the ring-necked
snake she'd found to better appreciate its defenses. All of which must have impressed
my hosts, and within months I moved to the West Coast. Among the perks of my new job
was founding director Joseph Grinnell's antique rolltop desk.
Over the next two decades I often figuratively pinched myself in disbelief. For
starters, the University of California's oldest campus is heartbreakingly beautiful,
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