Last of a Breed

One of the last frontier-era biologists is finally given his due

Harley Shaw and Mara Weisenberger's fascinating new book, Twelve Hundred Miles by Horse and Burro: J. Stokely Ligon and New Mexico's First Breeding Bird Survey, tells the story of one of the last great field biologists/explorers in the American Southwest—and one of the least-known.

Shaw, one of our most-thoughtful and most-respected wildlife biologists, worked for the Arizona Game and Fish Department from 1963 to 1990 studying mule deer, wild turkeys, mountain lions and desert bighorns. He is author of the classic Soul Among Lions and Stalking the Big Bird, important books about the complexities and realities of modern field biology. Weisenberger has been a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at New Mexico's San Andres National Wildlife Refuge for 18 years.

Shaw and Weisenberger have determinedly pursued the sparse details of Ligon's life, to our great benefit. While the book's main focus is the story of Ligon's first job as a professional wildlife biologist, it goes well beyond that. Ligon's life and work represent the transition from a consumptive, economics-driven biology to a more-holistic, ecological view of life.

James Stokely Ligon was born in Hays County, Texas, in 1879 to a family engaged in ranching, freighting and well-drilling. He learned about hard work early on. Growing up around horses, tools and machinery gave him the invaluable skills of independence and problem solving.

His interest in wildlife began at a young age, and he credited his mother for an early fascination with birds. He remembered as a child the cards that came with boxes of Arm and Hammer baking soda, featuring illustrations of birds with short descriptions. We shouldn't underestimate the power of small childhood moments like this and the power they have to influence and guide a person toward a career.

In 1900, he and two brothers floated down portions of the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers in a pair of homemade boats. He owned a field camera by then, one that used 4-by-5-inch glass plates. While no written record of the journey has surfaced, a set of excellent photos documented the adventure.

Shortly after the river trip, Ligon completed a single year of college, studying biology, botany and zoology. By 1907, he was working on New Mexico's famous Bar Cross Ranch in the southern half of the harsh and desolate Jornada del Muerto region. He worked as a "windmiller," a hazardous job that involves climbing atop often-rickety windmills to maintain them. An errant gust of wind or a single moment of inattention could be fatal. Shaw and Weisenberger note how this likely led to Ligon feeling comfortable climbing trees and cliffs to collect birds and their eggs.

It was in 1913 when Ligon landed work with the U.S. Biological Service. The late-19th and early-20th centuries were dramatic times in New Mexico, witnessing the last gasps and (often bloody) vestiges of the Old West and the technology-driven birth pangs of the New West. Against all of this, Ligon set out with two burros and a horse to see New Mexico and learn something about its birds.

His job with the Biological Service was to survey the state for nesting birds. Covering a loop of some 1,200 miles alone and on horseback, it was one of the last "big rides," great solo field journeys undertaken by early biologists before the days of four-wheel-drive vehicles and air-conditioned motels. It took a special kind of person, with an eclectic background of knowledge and skills, to undertake such a potentially hazardous journey.

In addition to reconstructing Ligon's personal history, Shaw and Weisenberger combine excerpts from the handwritten breeding-bird survey and journal with supplemental commentary and many of Ligon's photos, creating a rich context for his work. Shaw retraced parts of Ligon's journey and incorporates some of his own keen observations. He also took photos at some of the same spots where Ligon did.

"Stoke," as Ligon was called, died in Carlsbad, N.M., in 1961 at the age of 82, eulogized as "the gentlest of mountain men" and praised "as a pioneer, ornithologist, biologist, zoologist, conservationist, author and senior citizen of New Mexico."

Aside from the handwritten breeding-bird survey and journal, obscure government records, and a few out-of-print professional publications, much of Ligon's written legacy seems to be lost for good. We are lucky indeed that Harley Shaw and Mara Weisenberger have preserved for us what remains of the story of this remarkable man, the last of a breed.

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