Happy as a herper

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An oddly cooperative Graptemys ernsti.

More Nerodia fasciata than you could shake a stick at (and I literally did at one point).

And, of course, the Drymarchon couperi, the most impressive specimen we came across all weekend.

Confused? Don’t worry; I was, too; just blame Carolus Linnaeus, that Swedish lothario.

For most of this last weekend, I listened to amateur field herpetologists banter back and forth during the group’s trek into the Conecuh National Forest.

More than a dozen “herpers,” as they call themselves, descended upon the Conecuh area, and spent the better part of the weekend walking creek beds, pondsides and abandoned trails, turning up underbrush and logs, all in search of various rare or hard-to-find reptiles and amphibians.

Several had lists of creatures they “had” to see while on the trip, composing of relatively common yet still unseen animals like the barking tree frog to “lifer” finds like a coral snake or a rainbow snake.

Me … well, I was there just to take it all in, really.

While this trip would be my second annual sojourn into the Conecuh Forest in search of snakes, I was not an official member of the group, made ever more apparent by my lack of understanding simple binomial nomenclature for any of the specimens found.

Folks would be rattling off statistics, distribution maps and behavioral patterns of various animals as if they were speaking about their own daily habits, and I was left to practice my “smile and nod” technique for most, if not almost all of the weekend.

These people not only knew their stuff, but could discuss in such a way to where only they truly knew to what they were referring, content area experts whose language barrier was nearly impenetrable, even to a vigilant English major like myself.

Were you there, you might have heard me call out “I think I found a frog,” only to have another group member call out a cry of “Bufo fowleri,” indicating both a Fowler’s Toad and the fact I lack the ability to differentiate between frogs and toads.

They were professionals; I, the very definition of amateur.

I spent most of my weekend watching and observing, taking in the masters as they practiced their hobby, and I was struck by one major thing:

I wish I enjoyed anything as much as these folks enjoy looking for reptiles and amphibians.

To see the joy and elation on people’s faces as they found their prey and began snapping dozens of photos to post to “the forum,” was to see a joy so pure, as one seldom sees it outside of children on the morning of any major gift-giving holiday.

It might have been just the small sight of a salamander, but these folks reacted as if they had just seen a movie star or a space alien.

While it sounds silly to say, I was almost jealous of their joy, angry that there was no similar stimulus to bring me happiness.

I should have known to wait for joy to come to me.

10:45 p.m., Saturday evening.

Standing in the middle of a series of small ponds, watching one of the young members of our group, clad in khaki shorts and sandals, wade into a pond where cottonmouths had been sighted a night before and begin pulling up banded water snake after banded water snake.

I look up to a moonless sky of bounteous, gleaming stars.

I hear a hectic cacophony of various frogs and toads surrounding me, putting Aristophanes’ croaking chorus to shame. Breke-kek-kek, my ax.

A slight breeze touches my face, cooling the beads of sweat attempting to escape down my forehead.

In that moment, there was some inexplicable feeling, a sense that all was right with the world and my place within it, however insignificant that role may be, a bit player in a cast of billions upon billions.

It was a moment that seemed to last a lifetime as I took in the spectacle of natural wonder and beauty around me.

I pick up my left foot to begin walking again, bringing it down with an unforeseen squoosh into mud and water that saturated my shoe and sock, breaking the thought and ending the cosmic moment.

Ah, well. Worth it, says I.

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