[BELLS RINGING] SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
SPEAKER 2: In a Chats in the Stacks book talk in March 2014 at Mann Library, Cornell professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Harry W. Greene presents thoughts on the making of his new book, Tracks and Shadows, Field Biology as Art, both an absorbing autobiography and a celebration of the beauty in nature. The book explores multiple themes, including the nuts and bolts of field research and teaching, the destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity, and the role of natural historians in saving species from extinction.
Professor Greene is a Stephen H. Weiss presidential fellow, and one of the world's leading snake experts, with more than 40 years of fieldwork on six different continents. Other publications include the award-winning book, Snakes, the Evolution of Mystery in Nature. His books promote biological diversity, ecology, behavior, and conservation, the core components of scientific literacy.
HARRY GREENE: Well, thank you all for coming today. I'm flattered that so many of you would walk over here on a very cold afternoon. At least it's bright and sunny.
I decided I'd try to tell you about the only two books I've written. And I actually should have changed the title. One publisher, two books, several editors, and almost three decades. Because I'm a very, very slow writer. And this most recent book of mine came in nine years past contract deadline.
So here's how it sort of happened. I mean, you'll see what I meant. This is not a brag. I had an unusual youth in that I published my first paper when I was 15 years old. And by the time I faced my junior year in college, I'd published three or four more papers. As it happened, my GPA at the end of my junior year in college-- my cumulative GPA was 1.89.
So I'd amassed a stunning D-plus average for three whole years of college. And I promptly flunked out of two schools, and finally squeaked out, graduating almost a year late from a third small university in Texas. One of the things that happened while I was a high school student-- and I was so involved in biology already-- was that although I published several papers, I didn't have a single date. And when I went to college, I reversed that priority.
And so that explains the 1.89 GPA. And it made it very tough for me to get fellowships in grad schools and so forth. I also, to support my social habit, almost on a whim went to work for this funeral home. And I mean, literally one day I didn't have a job, and the next day, I was picking up dead bodies and driving an ambulance. And I did that for a year in a small town.
And then when I flunked out of those two universities in quick succession, I moved to Fort Worth. I took a job full time as an ambulance driver for a big ambulance company. And I worked there for another 2 and 1/2 years. And so by the time I went in the army, I already had a lot of experience with violence and death.
I had a easy time the army. I was a very lucky medic, because at the last minute, I was sent to Germany instead of Vietnam. But shortly after I got out of the army, the first woman I'd ever been in love with was murdered. And so by the time I was 30, I can claim that I'd had a little more experience than you're supposed to have by the time you're 30 with violence and death.
So now it's like the early 1980s. I'm up for tenure at Berkeley. I'm writing scientific papers like crazy, partly because I like doing that and I still do, and partly because it was that or find another job, you know? But I had this sort of nagging desire to write differently, to write about something more, to write about issues beyond just how many eggs snakes lay, and how they get their food and so forth. And so I had this notion that I could write something that would somehow entail my experiences up to that point, but I didn't know how to do it.
So two things happened about the same time. One was the first summer we had computers with word processing programs, I wrote a stream of consciousness account of my first 30 years, just so I wouldn't forget stuff. So one summer, whenever I had a break, I would sit down with this document, and I would try to remember sights, and sounds, and dialogue, and tastes, and just everything I could think of, the color of the car that I crawled into to pull somebody out of it and stuff like that. So I wrote all down and I put it in a notebook and I set it aside.
And that same summer, I believe, a friend of mine said hey, have you ever read A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean? And I'd never heard of either Norman Maclean or A River Runs Through It. If you haven't heard of it, it was University of Chicago Press's first fiction book that they ever published. It was rejected by many [? authors, ?] including Knopf. And it eventually became an international bestseller, and he had sold hundreds of thousands, if not millions of copies, and been translated into many languages and made into a film by Robert Redford and so forth.
And when I read this title novella, A River Runs Through It, I was so struck by the fact that was clearly autobiographical, and that Maclean would do things with words that really remind me of how life was. For example, Norman Maclean's brother is killed violently in an alley fight, and that happens in the middle of a paragraph. And you're just going along, learning about Norman Maclean and his father, the Scotch Presbyterian minister and da, da, da. And his brother gets killed in an alley.
And I thought, that's how it is, you know? You pick up your phone one day and you think your mom's calling you to dinner, and it's you find out Marcia's been murdered. And so I was really struck that you could do these things, that there had to be a way to do it. So long story short, I got to have dinner with Norman Maclean about a year before he died in Chicago.
And I thought, well, I'm going to tell him about driving an ambulance, and working with cops, and going into burning houses, and all this stuff, and he's going to tell me what I can write about. And the guy didn't seem very interested, you know? He was 80 years old, and he was cantankerous as could be. And two or three times during the dinner, he turned to me and he goes, why don't you write about those damned old rattlesnakes?
No, actually what he said was, why do you want to work with those damned old rattlesnakes? Why don't you go write about that? So on the plane back to Berkeley, I thought, he's right, you know? Either I'm never going to write about this other stuff, or at any point I'm not ready to write about it now. So I'm going to write a book about snakes.
And so that's what happened. I wrote my first book, which is called Snakes, The Evolution of Mystery in Nature. It had some unconventional design aspects, so every chapter starts with a frontispiece on the left side, OK? So every chapter has a frontispiece that introduces it. And every chapter has a personal essay that begins right under the title of that chapter and is ragged right, not justified, so it looks differently from the main text.
And I tell in the introduction to this book about my dinner with Norman Maclean. And these little personal essays run through the entire book, and end in an epilogue that's my attempt in the late 1990s to answer his question, why did I want to work with those damned old rattlesnakes? So this book came out in 1997.
By then I was quite a lot older, calmer, more thoughtful, perhaps. And I started writing a second book. So my second book came out this last fall. It's called Tracks And Shadows, Field Biology as Art. I actually thought of the title about 30 years ago, when I only had a vague notion of what the book would be like.
The book has three parts. And the first part has five chapters, second part has five chapters, third part has four chapters. And the first part is a combined memoir of my first 30 years and a biography of a man named Henry Fitch, who's sort of the father of snake ecology, and for whom I worked as a teenager at the University of Kansas.
The middle part is called "Conversing With Serpents." And it's about the doing of natural history. So it's about graduate school. It's about deserts. It's about tropical rainforest. It's about giant snakes. And it's about venomous snakes.
And then the third part is called "Pretty in Sunlight." And it's my attempt to sort of make sense of all this. And it has a chapter about friendship. It has a chapter called "Loose Ends" in which I cover various topics. It has a chapter called "Born Again Predator," which I could tell you about the meaning of that or not, depending on whether you want to talk about it. And then the last chapter is called "Field Biology as Art."
And so that's what my little book's like. And I'm just going to tell you a few things that come out of this little book today. So this won't be a long lecture. But I'm going to hit about three topics that are in fact related, and that come out of my little book.
And the first one has to do with the notion of beauty. But more generally, it has to do with why we care about organisms. I spent most of my career studying animals that most people don't like. Some of these animals are even capable of causing us extreme pain and even death.
And so I'm interested in the question of why might we tolerate, why might we choose to accommodate things that can hurt us as the world gets more and more full of people. And of course, we could talk about what are known as ecosystem services, the way that nature does things like clean the atmosphere, and supply us with drugs and so forth. But I'm more interested in the question of why would we care about animals and plants and nature for its own sake?
And even when you get within that question, I think it's easy to look at some kinds of things and just find them charismatic. So we would all probably find elephants, for example, charismatic. Not picking on Katy Payne, but I think elephants are so lovable, it's just undeniable. But what about snakes, you know?
So this is a big pit viper called a Urutú in Portuguese. This is what it looked like when I came around the corner of a road through the Serra da Canastra National Park in the central [? Saharas ?] of Brazil. And this is one of the single most beautiful animals I have ever seen in my life.
So I've seen some of the big cats in the field. I've seen lots of other mammals in the field. I've seen lots of beautiful red-eyed tree frogs and other things like that. And hands down among them all, this is one of the most beautiful individual animals I've ever seen in my life.
I think this is a magnificent creature, with these symmetrical scales, and these bright enameled facial markings, and these upside-down dumbbells around her side. This is when we first saw her. And this is after we jumped out the car and walked up to take her picture and she snapped into her defensive posture.
So for me, this snake readily qualifies as beautiful. Here's what Charles Darwin said about the same species. "The expression of the snake's face was hideous and fierce. I never saw anything more ugly." OK?
So clearly, even biologists can differ profoundly in terms of whether they think something is beautiful or not. So what about that? I mean, does something have to be beautiful in order to matter?
Well, I think it becomes interesting to turn to a distinction made by the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant between the word beautiful and the word sublime. Now I just gotta tell you, I am not a philosopher. There are many large volumes written about beauty and sublime, and they do not all agree. I used to feel insecure about putting this up. And I once asked a philosopher if I should try to read Kant in the original and English, and he just shook his head.
I actually did try to read Kant, and I got about three lines in. So I'm not claiming to be a Kant scholar. And in fact, I took this from a secondary source. But here's what Kant said, "that the beautiful concerns the form of an object being bounded." Whereas "the sublime is formless and unbounded, strikes the imagination in powerful ways."
In other words, beauty typifies an object. We could on whether this bottle is beautiful or not, OK? But sublime goes beyond that. Sublime transcends just the properties of the object itself. And that means it comes from context, from information, and so forth.
I'm going to illustrate this with my three most treasured material objects, which are shown in this slide. Now you're looking at that and you're just getting skeptical really quickly, aren't you?
But let me just tell you a sentence or two about each of them. This is a rolling pin that my grandfather carved out of a single block of oak as the only Christmas present for his teenage bride in December of 1921. And I make biscuit dough and cobbler dough and shortcake dough with that rolling pin. When I was a nine-year-old boy, my grandpa was my hero. And now I have that rolling pin. And remember, that was the only present she got as a 17-year-old bride on a dirt farm in East Texas in 1921.
This book right here is called Bombers Across. It was written by a pilot in the B-24 in World War II. My father was a 24-year-old navigator in B-24s over Europe in World War II. And he sent this book back to his parents in Endicott, New York, with his penciled annotations in the margin explaining what it was like to be so terrified flying over Dresden and other parts of Europe.
I didn't see this book till after my father died. So my mother gave me this book a year or so after my dad died. So imagine now you're in your 40s, you're having your own midlife crisis. And you find in the margins of this book your dad's 24-year-old scribblings to his parents about what it was like to be a navigator in a B-24 over Europe.
And then finally, this is probably one that puzzles you the most. This is a Model 94 Winchester. And when I was a kid in Texas, if you said you had a deer rifle, you didn't even say what it was. That was a deer rifle in Texas until the 1950s or '60s. And I grew up around guns not as 9-millimeter objects of terror in city drive-by shootings, but as things like hammers and saws and so forth that your father and your grandpa and so forth taught you to use for a particular purpose.
And I always wanted one of these old Winchesters. And in 1990, my Berkeley PhD these students and postdocs bought me that old Winchester. I got a card in my mailbox that said, one pre-1964-- which is when they changed the design-- one pre-'65 Model 94 Winchester. You find it, and we'll buy it. And my students bought me that old rifle.
So maybe with just that little, you can tell how each of these objects actually has an aesthetic impact on me that goes far beyond just their appearance as objects. And my contention is-- and Ross Keister's contention was-- that you can take Kant's distinction between beauty and sublime and you can apply it to nature, that the kinds of things we learn about organisms and environments through scientific research play directly into our appreciation of nature. In fact, I'm thinking more and more that this feeding into appreciation and therefore into values might actually be among the very most important outcomes of scientific research on organisms in nature. So the things I'm going to tell you about in the next 20 minutes or so of the remainder of this talk sort of build on this distinction.
So my task is to get people to care about snakes, OK? And it's a formidable task, because we grow up often with prejudices against snakes. So the way I go about it is to show people how cool snakes are.
So just for starters, snakes move around without any limbs. And if you think that's no big deal, just get down on the floor, fold your arms up, and try to wiggle to the back door. You can do it, but you will be very slow and very inefficient and very awkward.
Probably even more impressively, snakes can eat meals in some cases weighing up to 160% of their own mass. So imagine me eating a cheeseburger weighing say, 270 pounds without carving it into pieces or using my hands to stuff it in my mouth. That's what some snakes can do.
This is a moderately large meal for a snake. This is a picture taken in the wild in Costa Rica by Dan Jansen. That's a, I'm guessing, 30 to 40-pound boa constrictor about 10 feet long. Now she did eat that white-tailed deer fawn, which I'm guessing might have weighed 20 pounds, something like that. And actually, after she finished eating that fawn, she didn't look that stuffed.
So she didn't look like the boa in The Little Prince, you know? Remember that-- like this?
She didn't look like that. She looked like an enlarged tube, but she didn't look that stuffed. And I hope you'll agree it's a pretty impressive thing to do that. And the consequences are enormous. It's quite likely that this is something like a third of this snake's annual energy budget.
So with just one risky foray, hunting expedition, so to speak, and swallowing event, this snake has consumed about third of its energy needs. Might have taken an hour to do so. Three times a year, and that's it, it's all set. It doesn't have to get out there and take risks and so forth. It's a very different way of living from being like a hummingbird or a shrew.
So of course, the question is how can they do this? And I'm going to teach you how they do it using a method that I developed about 30 years ago at Berkeley. And I'm going to show you how some 9-year-olds in Houston a couple of years ago showed me how to do it better.
This is a boa constrictor's skull. And the first thing you probably notice is that the lower jaws are not connected at their front ends, OK? In most vertebrates, including us, during embryonic development, the two halves of the lower jaw fuse at the front of the jaws in a joint called the mandibular symphysis. And if you put your finger here, you can feel a little groove between two bumps. Does everybody feel it? It's really fun to do this in a room of about 400 people.
Got 400 people all sticking their finger against their chin like this. And if any of you-- a few of us are old enough to remember an actor called Kirk Douglas. He had a very obvious mandibular symphysis, big groove here, you know? So snakes never make that.
The second thing, which is a little less obvious but I'll show it to you, is that in most vertebrates, the lower jaw articulates with the skull. So if you put your hand on the side of your face right here and open and close your mouth, you can feel your lower jaw articulating at the temporomandibular joint with your skull. But in snakes, the lower jaws aren't articulating with the skull, they're articulating with one or more long movable bones, in this case, two, that suspend the mandibles from the skull, OK?
These two things together make possible incredible gape. And you can make a model of how this works-- a model you can show, by the way, to six-year-olds, so I've had whole classes of six-year-olds doing this-- with your own body. So if you clasp your hands like this and hold them up to your chest, and imagine that you are a lizard's head.
And when your lizard is hungry and wants to eat an insect, it opens and closes its mouth like this, OK? And when its mouth is open, the biggest thing it's going to eat has to go through this triangular hole right there. Does that makes sense? So are you imagining you are now a lizard head?
OK? So if you're a snake head of the same size and you have no mandibular symphysis, and your jaws are connected to long swinging struts that hang out from the skull, you could open your mouth this big. Remember, it's the same head size, OK? So you can only eat something that goes through this hole, or you can eat something that goes through this hole. And that's a significant reason why snakes can eat such big food.
There's one more thing that's a little more complicated and more difficult to explain. You probably know this, there are a lot of teeth up here. And if we were directly underneath looking up at it, you would see basically, two upper jaws, a right one and a lower one.
But instead of being like this one continuous row of teeth like we have, it consists of two sets of bones. So this is the right upper jaw of a snake. And this bone right here, called the maxillary, is the one we have teeth on. But snakes also have teeth down the middle rows like this.
And this whole thing, unlike our maxillary bones, is highly movable. So it's actually suspended from the roof of the brain case. And it floats in the mouth like this. And it can move back and forth like this. And the way a snake eats is not to actually pull that deer into itself.
We used to say that, and then somebody finally thought, how could it do that? How could those tiny muscles in that head move that deer? And we finally realized-- it's kind of absurd how long it took to figure this out-- it doesn't have to move the deer. It just has to move its head.
And that's what a snake does is essentially hand over hand-- so it opens one side, goes like this, pulls its head forward. And while it's pulling with the left side, the right side's opening, moving forward, putting the teeth in, and pulling that side of the head forward. And it literally, hand over hand pulls its head over the big food items. Does that make sense?
So you notice, that wasn't in my model. And that's because I only have two arms. I never figured out how to do it any better. And so a couple of years ago-- I have a friend who has a brilliant daughter named Sadie who really likes snakes. And he's an amateur videographer, actually makes a whole second income just with his YouTube videos.
And so we got this idea of going to her Montessori school and asking the kids how to do it better. And so I won't go into it, and I'm not going to show you the video now. But you can go to YouTube and see this. And basically, these kids invented this way to use two kids to be the head of a snake.
And so this is them doing it. Sadie's being the upper jaws, and Kristy's being the lower jaws. Took just a little bit to get coordinated. There is a bit of confusion. But they finally got it, and it works really well.
OK, if I'm trying to convince people to like dangerous snakes I think the next thing I have to do is be honest with them about the danger. So there's a subset of nature lovers who think that we basically should minimize the dangers that animals pose to us, or the problems that animals cause for our livestock and so forth. And I'm not part of that group.
I think to tell ranchers, for example, that wolves don't eat large ungulates is to assume that ranchers are stupid. And I can tell you ranchers are by and large not stupid. So if I were trying to convince ranchers to like wolves, I would not start out telling them that wolves don't eat large ungulates. I'd start with the truth, and then move from there.
And it's the same way with snakes. I don't think you can tell people that rattlesnakes and copperheads aren't dangerous. They kill people. It's all a matter of sort of circumstance.
This is the tombstone of a young man who died at the age of 18. It took him eight days to die. It would have been absolutely hideous death, right after the Civil War in south Texas.
On the other hand, this problem, as I would maintain, are most of the risks associated with the dangerous and large animals is relatively easily solved by research and education. So for most of the problems that spring from our potential conflicts with animals, we can figure out ways to ameliorate them, get them almost down to zero, get them down to tolerable levels. And certainly, that's true of snake bite in this country.
In this country, the average snake bite victim is a young male who's been drinking and picks up a venomous snake, OK? So it's not a hard problem to solve in the United States.
It's not a hard problem to solve. In this country, the average snake bite victim survives, probably even without treatment. In this country, we know exactly why you would die from a rattlesnake or a copperhead bite, or even a coral snake bite. And we know exactly what to do about that medical situation. So the truth is in this country, snake bite's essentially not a public health problem anymore of any significance. And it shouldn't keep us from appreciating snakes as parts of nature.
The next thing that turns out to be useful is to try to get past the idea that these are objects of evil. Now this is an animal with no eyelids. It's an animal without sucking lips. So it's an animal without conventional, to us, facial expressions. It's not an animal with which we easily empathize.
And my experience is the way to get around this is to convey some details of the lives of individual snakes. And doing this has been enormously facilitated over the last 25, 30 years by the advent of a spectacular way for studying snakes in the wild. And that is to put a tiny radio transmitter inside them. Once you have a radio transmitter inside them, you can find the snake over and over again.
And I was part of a 15-year field study in Arizona where we did just that. We made about 4,000 observations on 50 radio-telemetered black-tailed rattlesnakes. So this is a big adult male black-tailed rattlesnake, probably about four feet long, probably weighed about two pounds. A female would be about three feet long and weigh about a pound.
There's actually a female in this picture. She's super female 21, my favorite snake in my whole life. And she's sitting right at the entrance that hole right there. You probably can't see her, because that's one of the things snakes do is try to keep you from seeing them. But once we have a radio inside them, we can watch them all the time.
Well, I could give a long talk just about the things we found out in 15 years of watching these animals. But I'm just going to tell you one thing, and that's that we discovered that they had maternal care. Prior to this field study, there had been observations of rattlesnakes and other pit vipers in the field with their babies, and it had always been dismissed as coincidence. It was always dismissed as oh, we just happened to come along when one had just had its young. And that's in spite of the fact in some of the accounts-- there were details in the written accounts that made it very clear they weren't newborn young.
But by having these snakes with radio transmitters in them while they went through this very shy period of being pregnant, we could spy on them every day. We could watch them all through gestation, from late March until late July when they gave birth. And then we could watch them continuously once they had the babies, all day long.
We'd get up there before dawn, set up our spotting scopes, and we'd watch their interactions with babies. And it turns out what happens is they routinely stay with the babies. This species usually chooses a abandoned rock squirrel burrow as a gestation site, stays there for several months till it's ready to give birth. Gives birth, but then even though the snake hasn't eaten in about 11 months, she sticks around for about 10 days during a very delicate period in the babies' lives, when they're getting ready to shed their first skin.
So every morning, we'd go up there, and there'd be the female sitting outside the gestation site with the babies piled up on top of her. If you get too close, the babies zoom into the hole, and the mother starts rattling and backs in after. We did experiments later in captivity that shows that she's more defensive during this time attending babies than she is either before or after.
We did experiments that showed in captivity that mom and baby are mutually attracted from birth until the babies shed their first skin, and then the attraction is over. And in fact, because of these females we watched, especially super female 21, who was so unconcerned with our presence, we were able to show that the female sits and watches the babies shed their first skin.
And so this is the morning of about 10 days after birth. Here's super female 21 watching. This is the first of six babies that comes out one by one and sheds its skin right in front of its mom. The next morning, there's six intertwined skins, no babies to be found. And when we follow 21's transmitter, we find her 40 yards away at a wood rat nest trying to get her first meal in almost a year.
Well, it turns out this being a good mom is a really big deal, OK? If anything will make people empathize with a rattlesnake, it's being a good mom.
And so I would say among all the things we've learned and other people have learned studying rattlesnakes the last 20 years, this business of maternal care is the one that seems to really charm the public when I talk about rattlesnakes.
Now I want to take you back to about 1990 or '91, when I was still at Berkeley. Natalie Angier, who's a Pulitzer-winning columnist for The New York Times-- she writes for The Science Times too still-- she came to my lab in Berkeley to do a piece on vipers. And so I had a rattlesnake in a tube. It's a way we have safely handling venomous snakes. And I was letting her touch it.
And I was talking about how I had this pipe dream that one day-- not today, but one day-- things would change so much that people would actually sign up as eco-tourists to go see timber rattlesnakes at a den in the fall like they sign up to go see birds, you know? That was my dream. And I picked timber rattlesnakes, which don't occur in Berkeley, where I lived at the time-- but I picked timber rattlesnakes because at the time of the American Revolution, they were abundant in the eastern half of the US, very widespread, major large forest predator.
Ben Franklin wrote a very, very laudatory essay about the timber rattlesnake. It was on the Revolutionary War flag, Don't Tread On Me. And yet 200 years later, it's endangered in most of the states in the Northeast, entirely because of human persecution, and despite the fact that it's essentially not a public health problem at all. So I thought if the day comes when we've changed our attitudes towards dangerous animals enough that people will sign up to go see timber rattlesnakes, then we're really getting somewhere. And Natalie wrote in the article, ah, yes, get my travel agent. Like that'll be the day.
So fast forward to 1999, I moved to Cornell. Shortly after I get here, I get involved with the Finger Lakes Land Trust. Finger Lakes Land Trust was buying Steege Hill across the river near Corning specifically to preserve a timber rattlesnake den. And they had a series they called "Talks and Treks" in which somebody would give a talk on a Thursday night, and then lead a hike on a Saturday.
And so it might be about lichens, or it might be about fall warblers, or whatever. And they'd have somebody talk about that topic. And then on Saturday, there'd be this hike. So this in fact, as far as I know, is the first rattlesnake eco-tourism trip ever.
And there are a lot of cool things about this picture. I gave my talk on Thursday night. I told them about maternal care. I had a live timber rattlesnake I set out on the floor so they could see that it didn't run around the room chasing and killing everybody.
I told them all these cool things. I told them that we would not be picking up this snake, mashing down its head, showing off its fangs with a pencil, holding it by the tail and talking about how dangerous it is, and doing disrespectful things like that. We would be very respectful. They were to bring binoculars. We would not be catching the snakes or anything.
And so doesn't this look like a bunch of birdwatchers except for one thing? They're looking down. Isn't that cool?
John, why don't more bird watchers fall off things?
JOHN FITZPATRICK: Harry, they're looking at [? upper ?] birds.
HARRY GREENE: They are.
This is my good buddy, John Fitzpatrick. He and I have a 30-year friendly quarrel going on with the emphasis on the friendly and not the quarrel. So these people are all looking at a single rattlesnake. We walked them for four hours. We saw one rattlesnake in four hours, and it did not twitch. It could have been a plastic rattlesnake for all they knew.
When we got back to the parking lot, they were all just bubbling. Wait till I tell my husband I saw a live rattlesnake. Wait till I tell my son. Did you notice how the skin between the scales was kind of purple, because it's a pregnant female like Dr. Greene said it was?
You would've thought they'd seen a golden eagle or a bobcat. They were just glowing. And I think it's because they'd had a sublime aesthetic experience in terms of these snakes.
OK, I'm going to close with three brief vignettes. So this is sort of looking a little bit more outwardly. In the book, I talk about three gifts I would give young naturalists if I could. So if I could-- anybody, let's say, 30 or younger that was a naturalist and if I had the money, I would give you these three things. And I'm just going to tell you about one of them here.
But one of them is I would send you to Africa. And I would put you on foot, not in a safari van. I'd put you on foot among the megafauna. You can do this. I mean, there are various ways to do it.
You could know somebody who's a researcher there and go with them. That would be one way, and I've done it that way. You could go as a teacher for a Cornell course, and I've done it that way with my colleague [? Herbie ?] [? Lovett. ?] And I've also done it as an eco-tourist.
So in fact, you can go to South Africa's Kruger National Park and not have to pay all that money to be in a safari van. You can go on safari by yourself in a rental car in Kruger. And you can pay a little bit extra and get taken hiking way off-road in Kruger.
So I once walked about 25 miles off-road in two days in Kruger, just six tourists and two armed national park rangers. And it's a profoundly moving and thought-provoking thing to be on foot in Africa among the megafauna. And I want to tell you the three things I've gotten out of it over the course of three trips.
The first one is in this country-- and I really do think it's mainly in the United States. It's certainly mainly in North America. It's not a way of thinking that's so prevalent in Europe, Africa, and South America. But in this country, we tend to idealize wilderness as a place where there are no humans, or at least a place where humans leave nothing but tracks, not even a fire pit or anything like that.
When you're in Africa-- it hit me after a while-- you can't apply that notion of wilderness to Africa. Because if you want Africa with no people-- you can talk about too many people. You can talk about technology. You can talk about pollution, on and on and on. I buy all that. But if you want to talk about a conceptual ideal of Africa as wilderness with no people, you have to go back to when we were Australopithecines.
Because we started in Africa. There's never been in Africa without people until you go back to when we weren't people, OK? And actually, there hasn't been a North America without people for about the last 12,000 to 20,000 years, depending on what the evidence is. So I think that's a very thought-provoking thing in terms of how we think of wilderness.
The second thing is-- I'll put this as politely as possible-- poop is pristine.
You can't believe the amount of dung on the ground in Africa, at least if you're mainly a North American biologist. It is everywhere. There is dung everywhere. There is dung, and it's in the waterholes. They even poop in the waterholes.
I mean, there's just dung, dung, dung everywhere. It's so abundant and so diverse, and so identifiable species by species that we do class projects in our tropical behavioral ecology course in Kenya, where we walk line transects and count different kinds of dung, OK? We don't see that mostly in this country. And when we do find a cow pie or something like that, we get all exercised about it.
And I think that's because we live in a kind of a weird anachronism here in North America. We lost our megafauna about 10,000 years ago. You know that until about 10,000 years ago, we had six species of elephants in the United States? Elephant relatives? I mean, that's how North America came to be what it is today, is in the presence of megafauna. And we don't have ours anymore.
And the last thing is, always worry, sometimes terrified, OK? You just do not walk around on foot among the megafauna without being very humble in a special way that you don't have to be humble in most parts of the United States. You have to be respectful of the possibility there's an elephant in that thicket, or a buffalo in that thicket, or a lion behind that boulder. You can never forget that that's a possibility.
I found that after a few weeks in Kenya, I always knew which way the wind was blowing. I didn't get out the car without knowing which way the wind was blowing. And I didn't get out of the car with my students without looking around to see where is the nearest thicket that might hide something that could hurt us? It's a very different way of thinking. And I think again, it's something that has to do with our notions of wilderness.
Second thing, New World cattle. So environmentalists, especially in the western US, tend to think of cattle as a scourge on the landscape. And I do understand that the ranching situation out west is peculiar in terms of most of it happens on public land. It's not a place where there was a megafauna in many places, and so on and so forth. I get all that.
But I think it's a little more nuanced when you take the country as a whole, and here's why. Cattle evolved from a thing called aurochsen, the Old World aurochs. This was the original wild cattle. And it actually only went extinct in about 1627 in Western Europe.
In 1502 or 1503, Columbus brought Iberian cattle to the New World for the first time. And he first brought them to an island in the Caribbean. And within a couple of years, some of them went to Mexico on Columbus's ships. And some went to South Florida on Columbus's ships.
And after 500 years of largely natural selection in those two very different landscapes-- very arid out west and Mexico and the southwestern US, subtropical in Florida-- we now have two very different-looking-- we could say natural breeds of New World cattle. In Florida, they're called Cracker cattle. They're resistant to tropical diseases. They're resistant to hoof rot and things like that.
Out west, we have longhorns, as shown in this picture. Now I spent a lot of time on a ranch in the Texas hill country that has only longhorns on it. And it's an interesting place. These animals require basically no care.
So for example, with the so-called European improved breeds, it's not uncommon to have to pull the first calf. And that's because we've selected for giant fat calves. That's our modus for producing beef in this country.
And we haven't selected concomitantly for the size of the birth canal. So it's not uncommon for so-called improved European breeds to have trouble giving birth the first time. And in fact, some people breed their cows to a longhorn the first time so it'll have a small calf.
Well, David's cows never have trouble giving birth. They give birth to 40-pound calves. So there's a half-ton cow gives birth to a 40-pound calf, no problem, you know?
Second thing is all the surrounding ranches that run Angus and Hereford lose calves to predators. David never has lost a calf to a predator. You know why?
You don't want to mess with [? Sho'nuff ?] when she has a calf. It's just not a good thing to do, right? On this ranch, there are about 65 species of amphibians and reptiles, about 35 species of native mammals, and well over 100 species of birds. So I think if I took you there and we walked around on foot, you might come to see my view that in fact, this place is wilder for the presence of these cattle, given what I've just told you about the cattle and about the place.
And finally, just a little something about the California condor. When I moved to Berkeley in 1978, this bird was already in big trouble. It was down to a few dozen individuals. And by the early 1980s, there was a very controversial move to do something about it.
And I really can't overemphasize how bitter and nasty it got. There were scientists on both sides of the question. There were very famous environmentalists like David Brower arguing against it. But what eventually happened was the remaining 23 or 24 birds were all trapped, caught, and brought into captivity, at first in the Los Angeles Zoo, and later in the San Diego Zoo.
The arguments against doing it were we don't know-- at that time, we didn't, we do now-- we don't know entirely what's causing their decline, extinction, so why try to fix it when we don't even have a place to put them back? The most idealistic objections were once you put a condor in a zoo, it's not really a condor anymore. When you put numbers on its wings and a radio on its back, that's not really a condor anymore, it's some kind of man-made-- it's a figment. It's a shadow of a real condor. So it was very, very nasty.
But the arguments in favor of doing something won. As a result, in the first very few years, something like $40 million were spent on the condor conservation effort. And today we spend about $5 million a year-- most of it private money, by the way-- on keeping more than 200 condors flying over western North America and northwestern Mexico.
So I never saw a condor in the wild. By the time I got to Berkeley, I was heavily into desert reptiles, one thing and another. I never saw condor in the wild. Seen Andean condors, but never a California condor. I always wanted to.
About 10 years ago, I backpacked into and for several days in and then back out of the Grand Canyon. Never saw a condor. I had backpacked in Paria Canyon in Utah several times. Never seen a condor. And this is all within the range of where they are now flying.
And then the summer before last, my brother and I and our wives took one of these rafting trips. And Kelly and I didn't want to do 14 days on the river, so we just did the five-day version where you start at Lees Ferry, and then you get out at Bright Angel Trail and hike out to the main visitor center there. So it's a little over 4,000 feet vertical gain in about nine miles.
There were 17 people coming up that trail off the boat trip we were on, and I was the oldest person. And I was the last person out. It was kind of humiliating. I mean, there was a 12-year-old kid that I swear ran up that trail.
And so it's 5:30 in the afternoon. I'm the last one of the 17. I'm not carrying a heavy pack, either, it's a light pack. But I'm just older, you know? I'm 66 then, or 65 or something. So I'm kind of going along. I'm not in trouble, but I'm tired and I'm kind of feeling embarrassed.
And I'm coming around the next-to-last switchback, and I'm actually thinking about a Native American platform burial. How cool it would be when I die to just have myself put on one of those platforms, like the Native Americans did. And then I just think it'd be really great to know that a coyote would take one humerus and go one way, and another coyote would take a femur and go the other way.
To me, that would be the way to go. I don't want to be cremated or pickled or anything. I would like to be scattered by scavengers. I was thinking about that.
And I looked up, and there was this enormous silver storm cloud against an immaculate blue sky, and two giant black birds wheeling right over me. And you know if you see a golden eagle at a great distance, you don't have to even be able to see the field marks to know it's not a red-tail. You go, whoa, that's too big, that's not a red-tail. And then you look, and you prove it's an eagle to yourself.
I knew these were California condors instantly. White underwings, slotted primaries, et cetera. And it's like, wow, my first California condors! And so my first thought was, I'm not ready for you yet.
And my second thought was, worth every penny, OK? So that's my values on all that. OK, I'm going to close by just reading you a tiny piece from this book. This is not the ending to the book, but it foreshadows the ending to the book. It's not very long, so we can all have a piece of refreshment and so forth, and chat in just a second.
"Three gifts of pleasure and revelation in the form of contemporary literature bolted out of the proverbial blue and into the homestretch of this book. The insights they conveyed and a lot of the reasons I so strongly disagree with one author helped frame my portrayal of field biology as art." So I'm only going to tell you the first one. I'm not going to read that one I disagree with.
"I devoured Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer-Prize winning Lonesome Dove, and admired the television adaptation in which Robert Duvall stands out as Gus McCrae among his many fine performances. Both versions, meaning the book and the TV version, played to my affection for westerns with a far grittier nostalgia than the Zane Gray yarns and John Wayne movies on which I was raised, and they touched on troublesome themes to boot.
A cowboy's death from cottonmouth bites, improbable in the details, captured snake bite's horror. And never mind Comanches and desperadoes, my favorite character is more troubled by his relationship with women and the changes wrought by his own invasive culture. I vowed to revisit the novel someday, but instead fell into watching the six-hour mini-series every few years until Caroline Fraser ended a New York Review of Books essay about McMurtry with a quote from Gus-- that's the Robert Duvall character-- I immediately coveted.
In two sentences, that old rascal had encapsulated my favorite works by Albert Camus, Jim Harrison, Mary Oliver, and Gary Snyder. But I couldn't use his words-- Gus' words-- without seeing their context. And surprisingly, because I often marked such things, a thorough thumbing of my copy of Lonesome Dove revealed no dog-eared pages."
So actually, what happened was several years went by, and I kept thinking, I got to find that quote. "Course now clear--" finally, I had to find it, because it was like six years past contract deadline at that point.
"Course now clear, I dived back into McMurtry's masterpiece, and perhaps for having reached Gus's age, relished it even more the second time around. I was also uneasy. Colorful characters, a couple of cute pigs that eat rattlers, some startlingly violent incidents, and 600-odd pages later, what if I couldn't find that quote? Then one night, well into the cattle drive that occupied much the story, I noticed a folded page corner."
So I was literally lying in bed in Cayuga Heights reading, and I get to like page 637, and I see there is a dog ear right there, folded that way. "The two-inch thick book had been so tightly packed for my move to New York that the dog ear was flattened into obscurity. But now it's bent page tip beckoned powerfully. I strained to savor the moment, not to rush to what I hoped was ahead.
Gus and a teenage cowboy were riding apart from the herd, and suddenly found the ground strewn with bleached animal skeletons. As I turned that page, Newt, orphaned as a child, was lamenting a good man's violent passing, asking about life's meaning. And there was the quote. 'The earth is mostly just a boneyard,' Gus drawled, perhaps chewing on a grass stem and daydreaming of his beloved Clara, 'but pretty in sunlight.'" So thanks.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University on the web at Cornell.edu.
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Curiosity becomes science, and what we understand becomes what we value. In a Chats in the Stacks book talk March 6, 2014 at Mann Library, Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Harry W. Greene discusses the making of his new book, "Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art."
The book explores multiple themes including the nuts and bolts of field research and teaching, the destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity, the "sheer poetry" of field biology, and the role of natural historians in saving species from extinction.
Greene is a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and one of the world's leading snake experts, with more than 40 years of fieldwork on six different continents. Other publications include the award winning book Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature. His books promote biological diversity, ecology, behavior and conservation - the core components of scientific literacy.