The first time I went afield with legendary herpetologist Joe Collins, the setting did little for my apprehension.
Even at mid-day, the canopy of dense oaks and elms let no sunlight reach the forest floor. A fog-like humidity hung heavy in the air.
Rocks from dime to door sized laid scattered about an area clogged with pant-grabbing briars and cluttered with fallen trees. A vertical wall of rimrock was well-pocked with small caves and crevices.
It was the kind of “snaky” place I’d been taught to avoid growing up in a family with ill will toward all that slithers.
It was indeed snaky.
Within minutes, we were into serpents of assorted sizes.
But I had fun long before we exited the woods and walked back into the daylight.
Looking back, there’s some symbolism with that day and Joe’s life.
Collins, of Lawrence and retired from the University of Kansas, died Jan. 14 from a heart attack at the age of 72.
He spent most of his life enlightening people about their dark views of reptiles; animals he knew deserved as much respect as others.
He did more for Kansas reptiles and amphibians than any one person did for birds, fish or mammals.
He wrote dozens of books, including some of the prestigious Peterson Field Guide series, and hundreds of articles. His research was nationally-renowned and he was a consultant for other high-level biologists and other universities. He was in high demand as a speaker and educator.
Not bad for a guy with an associate’s degree from the University of Cincinnati.
Yet there was no ego. Joe seemed more excited to talk with an 8-year-old about her first garter snake than converse reptilian DNA with an Ivy League peer.
Usually dressed in knock-about clothes and sporting a ponytail of thinning hair, round spectacles, and an easy laugh, Joe was probably the most-liked man of science in the state. Today’s memorial service had to be held in a large KU auditorium.
No doubt many in attendance spent time outdoors with Joe. That’s where he could best make a positive case for the kinds of critters our society has long loathed.
On our first trip in Douglas County, and on the days we later spent on other trips, Joe showed me complete eco-systems most Kansans don’t know exist, with creatures that were fascinating and amazingly adapted for survival.
He once held a skink that was regenerating a tail possibly bitten off by a predator, therefore saving its life. “How can anyone not think these are fascinating creatures?” he said.
And he proved their appearances could be as amazing as their actions.
On that first trip he plucked an eight-inch western worm snake from beneath a lifted rock and placed it in my hands. With a coal-black back and pink, bubble-gum-colored belly, it was indeed a thing of beauty.
Eventually I had to concede the multi-colored bands of a milk snake’s bands can rival a rooster pheasant’s brilliant feathering.
But unlike the pheasant, Joe was proud to note that his lovely and lively critters are ones you can hold as well as behold.
To hold a living creature, he once said, was to get a literal feel for what they were like, a way to remove many mysteries and misconceptions.
“All fish and many politicians may be slimy,” he once joked. “Snakes are not.”
And they aren’t.
Joe worked well with someone who didn’t want to touch a snake. With Joe’s calm demeanor and humor, first would come a simple touch, usually a solo hold and then a smile.
It wasn’t long after the day of the worm snakes that I was tipping rocks and passing a new appreciation for reptiles to my kids and friends.
Most, too, passed it along.
My son got his grandpa to quit killing snakes unless venomous and in the yard. His third-grade class kept his great plains rat snake for months, watching it shed a layer of skin or work a dead mouse down a gullet that appeared too narrow for the task.
Sadly, there will never be another like Joe Collins. I just can’t see one person coming along with so much passion, personality and knowledge.
But because of him, there are thousands out there promoting his cause. That’s a heck of a legacy.