Let me start this with what sounds like another version of “when I was your age, I walked four miles to school and it was uphill both ways” story.  I was actually born at St Paul hospital in Dallas, but then it was back to the farm in Newsome, Texas (Camp county between Pittsburg and Winnsboro).  We lived on a small farm where my grandfather grew cotton and potatoes.  My grandmother maintained a huge garden that fed us for most of the year.  The house had no electricity or running water.  We got our water from the well and light from kerosene lanterns.  The only thing that was “piped” into the house was butane for our cooking stove and heaters.  

I know it is a little hard to believe how different it was from now.  My kids never lived without central heat and air, cable TV, a telephone and all the other normal accouterments.  By the time they got to school age, we had computers, cell phones, and video games.  I had blocks, plastic army men, a baseball and later a high tech item, an Etch-a-sketch.  Quite a difference.

When I started having an interest in animals, I learned about them mostly at my grandmother’s knee.  From her, I learned about such about things as hoop snakes (grabbed their tail in their mouth then rolled after you so they could bite you or sting you with their poisonous tail), spreadin’ adders (whose very breath was deadly), grass rattlers (striped and looked like garter snakes but were rattlers without rattles and deadly) and so many other “facts” about so many creatures. I learned that if you pull a hair from a horse’s tail and put it in water, it would turn into a worm; that “horny toads” could squirt blood from their eyes that would blind you if it got into your eyes; that centipedes stung with their feet and if they ran across your foot, stinging you all the way, you would die; and, of course, frog and toads would give you warts if they urinated on you.  

That was just the beginning of my education about nature.  It is a wonder that I overcame my early teachings, but I had one advantage that helped me overcome the misinformation.  I loved to read.  I especially loved to read about animals, snakes in particular.  

Mother realized that I was pretty serious about animals, especially snakes when at the age of 11, I saved my money until I could go to the bookstore and buy a book on snakes.  I didn’t buy toys or any kind of treats.  I bought books.  

By the time I was 13, I had devoured “A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians” by Roger Conant.  I knew the scientific names, the habits, sizes, reproductive types and could identify every snake in North America.  Before long I could do the same with turtles and lizards.  

Of course, I didn’t stop with reptiles.  I also caught and kept almost everything that wasn’t too fast for me to catch or not too smart for me to trap.  I had raccoons, opossums, squirrels, skunks, mice, rats, rabbits, all kinds of baby birds, armadillos and, once, a bobcat.  Naturally, I had LOTS of snakes, turtles, lizards, toads, frogs, and salamanders.  I didn’t neglect the “lower” forms either. I often had tarantulas & different spiders, caterpillars, scorpions, centipedes, water bugs, and other cool creatures. 

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To go along with all of that I had an insect collection, a shell collection, rock & fossil collections.  I learned about all of them from books. 

Let me add a couple of other items in my education that I had to prove or disprove the hard way.  

When I was around 11, animals were a common conversation around my house.  One night the conversation turned to catching skunks after one started wandering by the house some evenings.  My step-father assured me that they could not spray you if they couldn’t raise their tail to squirt you with the musk.  He also assured me that if you picked the skunk by the tail they couldn’t spray you.

So I built a trap that was only a few inches high.  The skunk could get in but it was too short to raise his tail.  A few rotten peaches made good bait and the very first attempt produced a skunk.  I cautiously approached the trap and the skunk got excited but couldn’t raise his tail and apparently could not spray me.  Good deal.  A new fact about skunks was proved to be true.  I sat a garbage can by the trap where I was going to drop the skunk when I got him out of the trap.  With some effort, I was finally able to grab the skunk by the tail and yank him up quickly.  The skunk wiggled back and forth and tried to bite at my hand.  Then he used a different tactic.  Remember the “fact” that a skunk cannot spray you when held by the tail?  Well, mark that one down as untrue.  No, better make it an outright lie.  I caught this horrible spray of nasty musk right in the face and in my mouth.  Did I drop the skunk? Nope.  I gagged and choked and cried, but I took the two steps to the garbage can and dropped the skunk in before I fell groveling, gagging, choking, etc on the ground.  It was horrible.  My eyes burned; I could not breathe, and I kept gagging from the musk in my mouth.   It seemed to go on forever.  Even now, after more years than I care to admit, I can still taste that horrible spray.  

My mother hosed me down and finally, I stopped retching.  It took quite a while to get my eyes to stop burning.  When I could breathe and see again, my mother tried all the old tales for getting rid of the scent.  I washed in tomato sauce, vinegar, mild Clorox, oatmeal and all kinds of other useless remedies.  We burned my clothes.  After a week, you could get as close as 5 or 6 feet from me without smelling skunk.  It was at least two weeks before it was hard to pick up the scent.  

So what happened to the skunk?  Well, he was released while I was recovering.  But about six months later I caught another one.  This time I made a large cage in advance that included a wire floor and a hiding place.  I put the trap inside, opened the door so he could get out in the cage.  Then I left him alone for a day.  After that, I very carefully approached the cage each day to feed him (using a pole at first).  At the first sign of him getting threatened, which he demonstrated by stamping his front feet and taking a few rushing steps toward me, I would run back out of range.  (And I ran FAST).  Before long, he calmed down.  It was surprising how quickly he got fairly tame.  I only kept him a couple of months but in that time he got where I could walk right up to the cage and put food in without him disturbing him.  He even would quickly take a bit of food from me, but I had to be very careful about doing that.  I didn’t trust him not to bite, even if an accident, but for some weird reason I didn’t worry that much about being sprayed again.  It just shows how stupid I was at that age.  🙂 

That was one of many adventures.  I should add that I was scratched and bitten by almost everything I caught or kept.  Rarely was it a bad bite, but I often got bitten.  That is especially true of snakes for I normally would just reach down and pick them up when I saw them (not venomous species, of course).  

All of this was my introduction to biology and the path to becoming a naturalist.  

I can still smell that skunk.