Monday, January 21, 2008

I’ve never thought of myself as an expert in anything, certainly not about herpetology. If I know more about reptiles and amphibians than anyone else in the room, it’s because herping is such an arcane (= nerdy) pastime. Put me in a room of actual professional herpetologists or old-timer herpers and I quickly sink to the bottom of the barrel. Still, that article I had published in Reptiles last year apparently earned me some cachet. Jesse Rothacker, the director of the Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary (a rescue/adoption agency) and an active member of the Lancaster Herpetological Society, invited me to talk to the Society about urban herping.

I took him up on the offer. I probably don’t know more about brown snakes (Storeria dekayi) or redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), than a lot of people in the Society, but how often to I get to talk to a room of people just as interested in herps as I am? So on Friday Scott, Jen, and I drove off to Lancaster, PA. We had trouble with traffic getting out of Philadelphia, but we had programmed enough buffer time into the ride and arrived just in time.

The talk went well. No one fell asleep and several people were polite enough to laugh at my jokes. In retrospect it turns out I might be an expert on herping West Philadelphia, if not herping Philadelphia in general. I’m no Ned Gilmore (who works at the Academy of Natural Sciences and has done a lot of surveying around Philadelphia), but I’ve got a local expertise that only a lot of time and energy in a specific place can earn.

A few weeks ago I finished reading Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year by David M. Carroll. Phillyherping readers probably remember that I’m a HUGE fan of Carroll, a turtle man who has developed a deep knowledge of the New England wetlands he hunts. He knows every trough and bank of reeds in every oxbow lake and marsh in his territory. He’s been catching some of the same turtles for years, and each time he finds them it’s like checking in on an old friend. I bring up the book because reading Carroll reminds me of what I like about herping locally: place matters. A sense of ownership and belonging comes from knowing your local landscapes and from understanding the place of reptiles and amphibians within them. You can be an expert about the herps wherever you are. All it takes is a little bit of research and a lot of time getting your feet wet and your fingers dirty.

On another note, the trip reinforced our desire to see an active Philadelphia herpetological club. The PHS hasn’t met for several years, and as a relative newcomer to Philadelphia I know I don’t have a complete grasp of all the reasons behind its decline. That said, Scott and are planning on looking into what would be involved in something up and moving again. We’re not thinking tomorrow, and I know I don’t want to end up in charge of anything, but we’re looking at putting some wheels in motion. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any thoughts or comments about what you’d like to see in terms of a Philly-area herpers’ community.