Tracks and Shadows

Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art

Harry W. Greene
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw3x3
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  • Book Info
    Tracks and Shadows
    Book Description:

    Intellectually rich, intensely personal, and beautifully written,Tracks and Shadowsis both an absorbing autobiography of a celebrated field biologist and a celebration of beauty in nature. Harry W. Greene, award-winning author ofSnakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature, delves into the poetry of field biology, showing how nature eases our existential quandaries. More than a memoir, the book is about the wonder of snakes, the beauty of studying and understanding natural history, and the importance of sharing the love of nature with humanity.Greene begins with his youthful curiosity about the natural world and moves to his stints as a mortician's assistant, ambulance driver, and army medic. In detailing his academic career, he describes how his work led him to believe that nature's most profound lessons lurk in hard-won details. He discusses the nuts and bolts of field research and teaching, contrasts the emotional impact of hot dry habitats with hot wet ones, imparts the basics of snake biology, and introduces the great explorers Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. He reflects on friendship and happiness, tackles notions like anthropomorphism and wilderness, and argues that organisms remain the core of biology, science plays key roles in conservation, and natural history offers an enlightened form of contentment.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95673-5
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. PART ONE DESCENT WITH MODIFICATION
    • ONE Tracks and Shadows
      (pp. 3-10)

      A timely old quote sidles around the two entwined themes of this book, my eccentric meditation on natural history. Writing from 1849 about Sierra Nevada streams devastated by gold miners, journalist Bayard Taylor likened nature to “a princess, fallen into the hands of robbers, who cut off her fingers for the sake of the jewels she wears.”¹ His brutal imagery frames a modern dilemma, because although many people believe animals relocate when their habitats are destroyed, most organisms have nowhere to go. They will die rather than move. Worse yet, these losses are usually unseen and writ large all over...

    • TWO Naturalist
      (pp. 11-25)

      “Descent with modification,” as Charles Darwin succinctly characterized evolution, encapsulates two indisputable facts. First, all organisms share ancestors from whom they have descended. My beloved Riley comes from a long line of Labrador retrievers, but his heritage extends back more than ten thousand years to Eurasian gray wolves. My father’s lineage traces to Nathaniel Greene, a Revolutionary War general, and the most recent forebears I have in common with Jesús Sigala, my Mexican Ph.D. student, lived in Europe, many centuries ago. The second fact is that traits like Riley’s yellow coat color and the blue-gray hue of my eyes arose...

    • THREE Nerd
      (pp. 26-40)

      My most cherished possessions include an antique kitchen implement, a WWII aviator’s memoir, and a rifle almost as old as I am. Walter Hyson Gibson gave the rolling pin to Hattie Lola Crews Gibson in 1921, three months after my mother, their first child, was born. He’d carved his teenage wife’s only Christmas present from a single block of oak, the darker heartwood visible down one side; it feels remarkably heavy, off-round enough to dispel any suspicion that Grandpa used a lathe and shiny from decades of Grandmommy’s biscuit dough and cobbler crust. My father, the second son of Harry...

    • FOUR Field Biologist
      (pp. 41-53)

      My parents’ generation experienced the 1940s as itinerant, uncertain, sometimes dangerous years. For Henry Fitch the decade following graduate work encompassed a burst of research as well as marriage and finally a move to Kansas, events that proved central to his happiness. First, however, the newly minted Ph.D. needed a job. Although one West Coast college expressed interest, Henry favored fieldwork and thus joined a group founded by Annie Alexander’s friend C. Hart Merriam. By then the Bureau of Biological Survey was focused on pest control, so the new Ph.D.’s first task was determining the impact of rabbits and rodents...

    • FIVE Medic
      (pp. 54-64)

      Natural history has always held my interest even as other obligations suffered. During that year in the Georgetown funeral home I published the massasauga observations with George Oliver, two papers from research with Henry Fitch, and a fourth on Texas alligator lizard behavior with Ben Dial.¹ I studied Mediterranean geckos on the walls of a nearby tavern—once taking a date along in the hearse to collect them—and microscopy was among the few classes at Southwestern that I took seriously, because my favorite professor, Gordon Wolcott, let me examine those lizards’ ovaries for a course project.² Along the way...

  6. PART TWO CONVERSING WITH SERPENTS
    • SIX Graduate School
      (pp. 67-84)

      Academia isn’t for everyone and there are many ways to be a naturalist, so I ask career-seeking undergraduates two questions: Which activities do you enjoy, and what kinds of accomplishments would give your life meaning? Jane Goodall, among the most publicly admired of all biologists, provides a familiar example for distinguishing betweenwhat one doesandhow it mattersin broader contexts—because if the discomforts and isolation of her early fieldwork had been intolerable, the famous chimp watcher’s scientific stature wouldn’t have followed, and her later global activism would not have been possible. By the same token, for some...

    • SEVEN Hot Dry Places
      (pp. 85-105)

      The mohave encompasses twenty-five thousand square miles of southern California and adjacent states, threatening to bake anyone who dares enter. By June it’s an oven and in August, even after dark, a merciless furnace. Scramble up a boulder on a breezy April morning, though—say, on a flank of the Granite Mountains—and you’ll bask in sumptuous austerity. Snow-capped San Jacinto pierces azure sky a hundred miles to the southwest, ten thousand feet above the Los Angeles Basin’s smoggy border. Joshua trees dominate nearby rocky slopes. Purple flowers carpet the flats. A friend’s boots crunch with metronomic cadence from an...

    • EIGHT Hot Wet Places
      (pp. 106-124)

      Rainforests are dimly lit and exceptionally diverse—claustrophobically dark and fecund—so no wonder tropical biologists end up puzzling over existential questions. At La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, giant trees with buttressed trunks tower overhead, obscuring the sky, and every glimpse holds the vibrant greens and somber browns of plants and their decaying remnants. After a torrential shower the air reverberates with the buzzes, whines, and clicks of insects. Mantled howler monkeys sound off in the distance. All around us leaf litter reeks from the chemical adventures of microbes, and over the course of hours my puny primate...

    • NINE Giant Serpents
      (pp. 125-145)

      We now turn from favorite places to their inhabitants: specifically, long scaly ones who challenge our notions of superiority and safety, even our sanity. An official from the Centers for Disease Control once told me, “Hazard equals risk plus outrage,” explaining why threats loom out of proportion to their likelihood of affecting us. In that vein, at Cornell University, where I now teach, cars bully pedestrians and a drunken bus driver once ran over a student, yet dogs are banned from campus buildings to protect our “health and welfare.” Likewise, despite the fact that the main cause of violent death...

    • TEN Venomous Serpents
      (pp. 146-166)

      The little south texas cemetery feels melancholic despite limpid blue skies, its somber mood reinforced by a windmill’s creaking dirge somewhere off in the thorn-scrub. I’ve come to check out a lichen-smudged tombstone, weathered by more than a century of sun, wind, and occasional rain, that reads “John D. Sweeten, born in Denton Co. Nov 14, 1862, was bitten by a snake July 16 in Atascosa Co., died in San Antonio July 24, 1880.” Ecologist Larry Gilbert, who grew up near here and alerted me to the grave marker, reckons it was a two-day wagon ride to the nearest doctor...

  7. PART THREE PRETTY IN SUNLIGHT
    • ELEVEN Friends
      (pp. 169-179)

      This book is about studying nature, incorporating one’s findings into broader biological and societal concerns, and reaping the emotional rewards of those activities. Doing natural history involves people—as I’ll show later, observing and recording are primal aspects ofhumannatural history—and however much solitude beckons, we’re no more truly separate from others than from our surroundings. Friends with whom we’ve shared failures and triumphs loom in our hearts, and perhaps they’re all the more precious to vagabonds like me, for whom so few have spanned life’s full arc. The mundane bonds of friendship, like those of family, weave...

    • TWELVE Loose Ends
      (pp. 180-200)

      Earlier i marshaled evidence that our dislike for snakes has roots in ancient predator-prey relationships. The advent of science surely didn’t eliminate such prejudice. In 1758, Carl Linnaeus, the Swede who first assigned named species to larger categories called genera, famously maligned amphibians and reptiles inSystema Naturaeas “foul and loathsome animals, distinguished by a heart with single ventricle and single auricle, doubtful lungs, and double penis. Most are abhorrent because of cold body, pale color, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom; and so their Creator has not...

    • THIRTEEN Born-Again Predator
      (pp. 201-219)

      Of those two favorite childhood books mentioned in chapter 3, the influence ofSnakes of the Worldis obvious, that of the other less so.¹Stocky, Boy of West Texasrecounted 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...

    • FOURTEEN Field Biology as Art
      (pp. 220-240)

      These pages opened with bayard Taylor’s allusion to a princess attacked by robbers for the jewels she wore, his metaphor for Sierra Nevada streams ravaged by nineteenth-century gold miners. Let me draw to a close with a better-known, twentieth-century quote. As Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum said, “We will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught”¹—words that nicely epitomize how research plays into both education and conservation. Field biologists observe organisms, discern patterns, and determine their causes; then, ideally, society uses that knowledge to coexist with...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 241-252)
  9. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 253-270)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 271-280)