An internet meme is a piece of information or an idea that takes on a life of its own. Richard Dawkins coined the term more than 30 years ago in his book on evolution titled The Selfish Gene. In that text, he defined a meme as a “unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another”. In web vernacular, a meme is generally a topic passed along from person to person (status updates on FB, posts on blogs, tweets on Twitter, etc.).
I’ve never been one to do memes. I don’t like feeling as if I’m part of a herd or as if I’m being directed. But sometimes they have value to me, in which case I consider them. So when Seabrooke tagged me with a meme, I looked askance at the details fearing I would have to disappoint her, which I didn’t want to do. I was thrilled to see it wasn’t lame (which would have surprised me coming from Seabrooke, but inherently most memes are lame even if they don’t appear to be on the surface).
The idea is simple: five questions to be answered. Because the questions are tailored to the subject, it’s not a case of being asked for senseless information like “Is your belly button an innie or a an outie?” or “When did you last use a Big Chief tablet?”. No, in this case I’m interested in sharing the information being asked for, so here’s my response to the quasi interview.
1) You seem to have an intense curiosity of the natural world; how did that curiosity come about?
It would be easiest if I could put my finger on a single event. Unfortunately, I can’t. It all began as a child. I grew up in the era before video games (oh, we had the original Atari, but it was for rainy days only) and the internet (heck, there weren’t even home computers in my earliest years). Back in the 70s during my formative years, we were the outside generation. We played in the dirt. We caught snakes and bees. We caught fireflies at dusk and placed them in a jar so we could release them in an explosion of living flame. We climbed trees, fell, skinned our knees, then got up and did it all over again. We rode our bikes or walked everywhere. We camped in the wild, sometimes for a week or more. We ate wild berries and even the occasional insect on a dare. All of this meant exposure to nature.
Add to that having a mother who feared very little in nature and wanted her children to feel the same way. She had us out catching crickets, playing with ant lions, watching the weather, playing with cicadas, and pretty much looking. And the more you look at nature, the more you see, and that means you look more because each layer unwraps like an onion to reveal yet another layer beneath, another set of secrets and beauties.
Then I went through my rebellious phase. It was all clubs and cars, friends and folly. But when I matured a bit more, I started looking again, only this time it was with different eyes. I’m a fanatical learner. About everything. So when I noticed nature again, it was more than just pointing and saying “Ooh, pretty…”, but instead it had became a desire not only to see, but to understand as well. What is this? What’s its role in the environment? Why does it do what it does? Nature became the biggest interest for me, not just here on Earth but also to the cosmological and quantum levels. I wanted to know it. And because one can never know all of nature’s secrets, it remains my single greatest passion since it never stops providing new things to learn.
2) What would you change about your home, your neighbourhood, your corner of the world? What one thing would you change to make it a better place?
I live in Dallas, TX, part of the DFW Metroplex, a sprawling expanse of cities and counties with many millions of people. The region is growing more quickly than any place else in the US. The urban and suburban sprawl irks me the most. So much habitat has been lost. So much wildlife displaced. Even now alligators are moving into the area, basically reclaiming territory they once gave up to humans. The response to their presence in the heart of DFW has not always been admirable, and in many cases they are being captured and relocated because they’re too close to people. It’s actually disgusting to see.
To make matters worse, the metropolitan area covers more than 9,200 square miles/more than 24,000 square kilometers. That means people drive everywhere. And when you’re talking about 6.5 million people and growing, that’s a lot of driving across long distances. Our air quality is poor (ozone alerts are common in summer). One easily can extrapolate how much this area adds to global pollution.
So what I would change is simple: protect what little is left of the Blackland Prairie ecosystem and stop developing sprawl. The further away people live, the further they have to drive to get to work. But they don’t want to live in the heart of the city. Yet these same people are disgusted by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As Mark Morford wrote, “…if you’re honest, no matter where you stand, no matter your politics, religion, income or mode of transport, you see this beast of creeping death and you understand: That is us. The spill may be many things, but more than anything else it is a giant, horrifying mirror.”
3) Describe your most profound encounter in the natural world. (Or most memorable.)
I’ve always said hawks are my totem animals. Though I usually add some unnecessarily soulful language to that (spirit guide or whatnot), I’m not really spiritual about them. It’s just that in all the animal kingdom, hawks I relate to best. So you’d probably guess my most profound or memorable encounter in nature would involve a hawk, perhaps even Baket. But you’d be wrong.
The one encounter that presently sits above all others involved a Texas ocelot (Leopardus pardalis albescens). Back in May 2009, I got lost somewhere near the Mexico border in deep South Texas. I roamed nameless roads for a while before pulling over to give my brain—and my nerves—a rest. With the windows rolled down so I could listen to and watch the world around me while I sipped water, a bit of movement caught my eye. There sleeping in a tree was the ocelot, a highly endangered and rare creature.
I was mesmerized. After snapping a few bad photos (I had no clear view of the cat due to brush and trees), I set the camera down and selfishly enjoyed watching it. It woke and spent perhaps 30 minutes looking about lazily, then finally it stood, stretched and dropped out of the tree. It vanished like a dream.
With only around 100 Texas ocelots in the state, I never once considered that I would see one. Oh, I had every intention of looking for them (half the state’s population lives in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and that’s where I was going). It’s just that I had no real expectation of seeing one. Being lost didn’t matter anymore. That I had seen an ocelot overrode every other thought and made being lost a gift.
(If you haven’t already, I do recommend you read the original post as it describes the encounter with more detail and gives some important conservation information about these critically endangered cats.)
4) If you could have a conversation with any person in history who would it be, and why that person?
Stephen Hawking. Hands down and without question. I know, perhaps something more oriented toward Earth-bound nature seems appropriate, but Hawking is my hero. Trapped inside a body that was supposed to give out many years ago, the man has forged ahead to become one of the greatest theoretical physicists in history. Similar to Carl Sagan before him, he’s been able to bring some of the most complex science down to a level for mass consumption (e.g., A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell).
Physics has always been a passion of mine because it is the one branch of science that controls every other branch of science, from biology to chemistry to meteorology and beyond. To me, physics represents the very foundation of nature, the core of what I’m most passionate about. Learning about it has always given me a better understanding of everything I see. And because physics walks hand in hand with my love of mathematics, an opportunity to sit and chat with Stephen Hawking would give me one of the greatest learning experiences anyone could have. Just the thought of it feels like illicit drugs coursing through my veins.
5) What advice would you give to anyone wanting to better experience the natural world?
My friend Ted once wrote that “Jason Hogle at xenogere is fond of the unusual and has a gift for finding it.” It’s a gracious compliment to be sure, but it got me to thinking about my answer to this question. I used to keep a list of every species I’ve ever seen, but then it grew too large and unwieldy, so I dropped it because I didn’t want to manage it and it felt like I was competing. But it did play to Ted’s remark, and I had to ask myself why I see all the things I see. Then it hit me: I don’t hurry and I look carefully.
A better experience in the natural world is simple: slow down and pay attention. Two very basic concepts. So much of the natural world hides in our hurrying. We rush with a sonic boom of white noise surrounding us, and that keeps us from hearing the whispers of nature that can reveal hidden secrets. We rush with a frenzied blindness to everything except the next goal, and that keeps us from seeing the gems that are right there next to us. We rush with an errant purpose that makes nature a resource instead of a mother. We rush and rush and rush, and that’s why so much is missed.
What’s unusual is simply what you haven’t seen yet. And if you haven’t been looking, there’s a lot you haven’t seen.
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 Plainbelly water snake (a.k.a. plain-bellied water snake; Nerodia erythrogaster)
 Sunset over White Rock Lake; part of downtown Dallas is visible at the far left
 Texas ocelot (Leopardus pardalis albescens)
 Waxing gibbous moon
 Brick caps (Hypholoma sublateritium) at the base of a tree