Did you forget about natural history, the story of the earth and its inhabitants in all their particulars? Yes, particulars, for it is in the details that the most wondrous stories lurk. Have you learned the specifics of even a single species as it finds a place and a way on this small planet? If not, then you are missing out.
When I look east from my end of the big Double Helix Ranch writer’s table, I see mesquite and post oak. I see little bluestem and Indian grasses. I see across a valley in the Llano uplift to the hills the frackers want to blast for their white Cambrian sands.
But when I look west, I see books. The entire long wall of this great room is bookshelves. Forty-eight of them are full, nearly entirely with books about life forms, from lichens to dinosaurs, grasses and flowers to nematodes, dragonflies to damselflies, fishes, turtles, amphibians, mammals, birds, deer, and life in Texas. Just half of one of these shelves holds 12 books: Handbook of turtles, Batricios de Chile, Amphibians of Argentina, Amphibien urodèles de la Chine, Amphibians of central and southern Africa, Frogs of Southeastern Brazil, Frogs of Colombia, Type specimens of reptiles and amphibians in the United States National Museum, The New World fieldbook of reptiles and amphibians, Australian reptiles in color, Reptiles and amphibians of Australia, and Amphibians and reptiles in Kansas. Other shelves hold equal riches, Ridgeway’s entire bird series, catalogs of fishes, Birds of Texas, and on and on.
These books take my breath away and I feel dizzy. How badly I want to learn what is in even one of them. Perhaps I might start with the brand new guide to the damselflies of Texas by John Abbott with its careful drawings of long damselfly abdomens by Barrett Klein and detailed photographs of male claspers unique to species. This is a modern book, published just last year.
There are also older books, like the one by Arthur Cleveland Bent called Life Histories of North American Wood Warblers, published in 1953, the year I was born, the 203rd Bulletin of the United States National Museum. The entry on the endangered endemic Hill Country local, the golden-cheeked warbler, describes its favored scrubby habitat and its nests, quoting from Attwater in detail from 1907 as told to Dr. Chapman, in the colloquial style of the time. “The favorite nesting haunts are isolated patches or clumps of scrubby cedars, with scant foliage, on the summits of the scarped cañon slopes, and in the thick cedar “brakes.” In cedar the older growth of trees is always selected, and no attempt at concealment is made.” The entry goes on to discuss stomach contents of young birds, making it clear that killing birds was part of a normal study at the time. This is only one entry of a book of 734 pages, just on the wood warblers of North America.
In my university, the genetics graduate students are encouraged to rotate through four kinds of labs, yeast, worm, fly, and mouse before they choose their life’s work. Labs in each of those areas focus largely on descendants of one or few individuals. How much of life’s variety is missed by this approach! I suppose focus might be needed for some sorts of study, but it can close the mind if those shackles are not shed as soon as possible. Some I fear may not even realize the binds exist, so narrow has their perspective become.
Perhaps it was this mindset that caused a colleague at a prestigious university to ask me recently about “the ant.” This person did not want to hear about ants in all their variety. She wanted to know about the ant, the typical ant, as if there was one form that prevailed. I might have pointed out that Hölldobler and Wilson entitled their masterful book The Ants, not The Ant. I could have told her about fire ants and their many-queen budding colony form or their single queen form. I could have told her about harvester ants that form workers from the sperm of another species. I could have told her about species with tiny colonies that fill acorns, or large ones that defend entire trees. Instead, I was speechless.
I hope you make time to remember books. I hope you make time to wander through the Q shelves in the library, and then have the opportunity to tie what you read to what you see outside. My view to the glowing east gives me peace and time to write. The wall of books behind me helps me know where to explore and what to say.
written at the Double Helix Ranch Writer’s Retreat