Using snakes to light a fire

I think I could have been very happy as a biologist. It was the direction in which I was headed, though always with the intent of turning my bachelors degree in biology into a professional degree. I chose to ignore the fact that I really loved biology as its own pursuit, fascinated with taxonomy and utterly enchanted with the concept of sitting on a smelly pile of rocks in a harbor by Marina del Rey counting mussels. I understood this, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, trying to get a grasp not only on the beauty of nature but how our interactions were screwing with it. Rule number one: You never eat shellfish from a harbor in Southern California.

I loved it so much I ended up with an emphasis in marine biology, not because I set out for that but because I loved Roy Houston’s classes so much I took every one he offered, even choking down my lifelong fear of submersion in order to get a PADI dive certification in order to study marine life even that much more closely. Science, man, it rocks.

I think I was about seven when I knew science was my thing. I remember very little about the specifics of the matter other than someone who knew what they were doing, someone who was enthusiastic about it, introduced me to it at the right time and it was all over from that point. I had a dog eared copy of Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and Answers which I would read over and over until the pages were dog eared, slamming the book with a satisfying squeal every time the book opened to the spider page and memorizing the facts about the amount of blood in a human body.

I remember this vividly, the thrill of finding that thing that you love, of devouring it and taking it with you, that need, that drive to understand more. I don’t know who first lit that fire, but to them I owe so much. I want to be that same person to my children, to help them find that tinder that sets them aglow.

They start school tomorrow, a new charter school in the area. I was and am nervous about doing something so abrupt, but such was the level of my despair at the state of public schools in our area. I told myself for three years I was overreacting and that every overprotective parent had the same reaction until I couldn’t lie any longer, until I heard teachers themselves talking in hushed tones about they, too, had sent their own children elsewhere, dejected at what they were unable to do with the limited means they were handed.

With this new school comes the heady responsibility of huge levels of parental involvement the likes of which I have never seen, and also the freedom to spend more time out in the world doing things that might, you know, interest them. Until I looked, I just never knew about all the options there were out there for kids to get involved with the community. Of course, me being me, I’ve spent a good 100% of my time looking up things I would have found interesting as a kid, but I figure that’s as good a place to start as any. I spent years barking up the wrong tree, sending them to soccer classes and dance school and things I didn’t like, and neither did they.

But this week, I found a lonely little flyer tacked up at the local Starbucks announcing a ranger-led reptile hike through a local preserve. So we went, my kids and I, and to my delight discovered a large contingent of USGS herpetologists (who knew the USGS did wildlife surveillance? I thought of them at the earthquake gurus), state park rangers, and local private reserve educators, all come together in the hopes that some members of the general public might be interested in learning about local reptiles.


We spent the first hour fanning ourselves under a tarp by a trailer as examples of various snakes were brought out to the group:


A lovely rosy boa, grey and pewter and docile;


A glossy snake, smooth as glass beneath our fingers;


A gopher snake (I think?) or some other such non-rattle snake that would, nonetheless, give me a minor coronary were I to encounter it at close range;


A king snake, confirmation that the visitor on our front porch was, in fact, this non venomous benevolent reptilian neighbor.


Then we headed out for a short hike, one kept brief by the exceptional heat that day. One of our guides, the kind who makes a living off of spotting such well camouflaged beasties, managed to spot this teensy horned lizard right in the middle of our path and scooped him up before we unwittingly tromped him. My camera couldn’t even pick him up to focus on him, so slight was he, no bigger than my thumb and able to blend in seamlessly to the desert brush.


By the end of the hike, I found myself separated from the main part of the group and with an older gentleman, who seemed to have an exceptionally deep understanding of local flora and fauna. He rubbed his fingers on a local plant and held it out for the kids to smell, telling them about the uses of its anise scented leaves. He pointed out woodpeckers and poison oak. Turns out he is an educator at a local estuary, and told me all about the programs they offer free of charge to kids through the national parks service.

“You can be a junior ranger,” he said to my daughter, who has to this point turned down junior lifeguard, junior ballet, and junior tennis. “We spend Saturdays in the marsh, counting herons, or maybe digging up clams by the beach. Some days we just wade through the rushes looking for fish.”

She nodded politely, and my son squatted with a bored look by the side of the trail. Well, at least I tried.

After the kind man took his leave, my son waved me over. “Look,” he said, pointing to nothing in particular. “I think I see more lizards over there. I’m just going to watch a little more,” and he resumed his look, not of boredom but intense concentration.

My daughter tugged on my sleeve. “Can I be a junior ranger this week?” she asked. “Please?”

The best learning always takes place outside the confines of the classroom walls, doesn’t it? Maybe the apple doesn’t fall as far from the tree as I thought.

Filed: Blog, Daily Life, Mother of the Year, Musings Tagged: , ,
  • Tamara

    You are the coolest mom ever! Will you be my mommy? LOL I love this post. It reminds me of so many things. First, a 3rd grader I once tutored who had trouble reading, unless he was reading about snakes and other reptiles. He laughed when I squealed while turning snakey pages. It also reminds me of countless hours I spent looking at the world around me, at lizards and their territorial manners, while other people thought I was crazy. It also reminds me of a family member, a retired geologist, who spends his retirement working with a friend and biologist to count and monitor a particular frog species in the foothills of the Colorado mountains.

    The world we live in is fascinating and full of life! I’m so glad your children are finding this out and that you’re giving them the opportunity to find their passion. I think you set an excellent example for many – not least of all your own family – of staying engaged with the world and following your passion. Bravo!

  • Lisa W

    I’m with Tamara! I’m older than you but open to being adopted anyway!

  • I got really scared when I saw the pics above a man having a cobra twisted on his throat and the It make me surprised the people use these snake to light the fire.Its really weird

  • Love this post! The USGS is awesome. They are going to use my next book about toads and frogs in their educational program. My father was a teacher with advanced degrees in physics and chemistry, so you see what happened……