MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - Kansas lost a remarkable and gifted person this year with the death of Joe Collins. I knew Joe as Kansas's foremost frog and snake guy, the author of Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas. But he was much more than that. Amazingly, he created an illustrious scientific career for himself without ever graduating from college. He skipped the whole credential thing and simply started doing science. He published the first of his scientific papers when he was just 19; he was later to author over 300 articles and 28 books and co-author the Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. In 1996, the governor of Kansas proclaimed Joe Collins "Kansas Wildlife Author Laureate."
Joe's career is an object lesson to young people who think they have to choose a boring field because it pays well and is therefore "practical." Sometimes just doubling down on what you love can be the most practical thing of all!
Joe's love of wildlife started early. As a little boy in Ohio, he spent as much time as he could with turtles, reptiles, and amphibians. Every day seemed filled with wonders as he learned more and more about his shelled, scaly, and moist-skinned friends. It hurt him, therefore, when he noticed something horrible about his own species: Behind the wheel, some people swerved to hit turtles on the road. Little Joe devised an ingenious revenge. He put the road-killed turtles back together but filled the shells
with nails. He placed the life-like reconstructions on the shoulder of the road--out of the way of regular drivers but visible to the ones who were so eager to kill animals that they would leave the road. Ouch! But what goes around comes around! I can only hope that those drivers learned to be more careful about what they sent "around."
I learned lessons from Joe, too, but luckily not such harsh ones. In the early 1990s, I heard Joe speak about frogs and toads at a local Audubon Society meeting, where he also told us about a citizen-science program he was initiating to monitor amphibian populations in Kansas. I knew that on spring and summer evenings wetlands were full of noises, but I didn't know how to tell one vocalization from another. This was my chance to learn the language of those sounds, and my heart spoke before I could even open my mouth: Sign me up! Others reacted as I did, and Joe soon had a good group of volunteers. He taught us how to identify amphibian species by their calls, how to estimate the number of individuals belonging to each species, and how to record environmental conditions. Then he sent us out to meet our fellow creatures!
For many years thereafter, on warm spring and summer nights, my friends Leann, Jan, and I went once a month to ten prescribed stops near amphibian breeding spots in northern Pottawatomie County. Quickly these excursions became a priority for us--we let nothing stand in their way. We waited eagerly in the spring for the ascending trills of Western Chorus Frogs and then, as the weather warmed, for the castanets of Northern Cricket Frogs and the long drawn-out burps of Cope's Gray Tree Frogs. We couldn't help giggling whenever we heard the demented chuckles of Plains Leopard Frogs or the maniacal whines of Woodhouse's Toads.
Yes, we were pleased to send good data back to Joe, and we liked the feeling of contributing to science. But more than that, we liked how science was contributing to us. Those long nights of listening in the darkness gave us something we didn't get in our workaday world. We three humans were citizens of a technological society, a man-made hall of mirrors. But our very bodies had evolved in interaction with a more-than-human world, with non-human beings. Now standing on the edge of Pott-County wetlands, using our sense of hearing to connect with night-creatures, we felt alive in new ways, as if a wound were healing. Of course, with their sensitivity to water quality, amphibians are our canaries in the mine, so in many ways their well-being is also ours. To hear them in full throat and good numbers is exhilarating--like being told you do not, after all, have a terminal disease. But in addition, while we were listening intently, we couldn't help realizing that we were being listened to. In fact, everything responded to us in one way or another, whether it was the night breeze that parted around us, the grass that bent down under our feet, or the frogs that fell silent when one of us sneezed. Isolated individualism? Human superiority? Such notions did not comport well with this realization. Rather, we three "selves" seemed to be part of a web of interactions so infinite as to shade into mystery.
Joe--you shared what you loved with us. We love you for it. We love you for giving us keys to unlock the secrets of the night. And we love you for sending us down a path that leads to the secrets behind the secrets--to ever greater knowledge, yes--but also to ever greater mystery--mystery that can be vibrantly experienced even when it cannot be fully understood.