I was standing in the glorious midnight darkness of the Rosemont Valley when the message came through. I was jazzing on poorwills, elf owls and one maniacal yellow-breasted chat while I gazed up at a million stars that you can't see in Tucson, anxiously waiting for the sort that shoots across the sky. It was May 23, the night of a potentially spectacular new meteor shower. I was trying to catch one last glowing streak of comet dust when my ancient dumbphone strangely grabbed a signal for the first time all evening and buzzed in my pocket.
The message was garbled, but the words became clearer each time I played it back: My dear friend Matt Caron had died, just a few weeks shy of his 36th birthday.
It had been 11 years, almost to the day (Matt would know it exactly), since I helped him move from Tucson to Portal, Arizona, nestled at the feet of the Chiricahua Mountains near the New Mexico border. Muscular dystrophy prevented him from walking, and he needed my help.
A couple of years before that, when Matt was still working on a Wildlife Science degree at the UA, he'd gone to Portal on a field trip and by chance attended a community meeting about a "problem" bear (i.e., one that had acted like a bear when it encountered problem humans). Community members—including the "hot redhead" whose home the bear had broken into three times—pleaded to wildlife managers to spare the bear's life. Matt was smitten, by the compassionate redhead and the notion of living in such proximity with wildlife. It was the perfect place for him, since his disease limited his forays into wild places. He moved to Portal and fell in love.
Matt wanted to be a park ranger ever since grade school. After college, he worked his way into a job at Saguaro National Park, where he contributed in all sorts of ways to protecting one of the great natural wonders of Arizona. After big monsoon storms, he would survey the roads on the perimeter of the park in his scooter, counting wildlife and road kill. It pained him to see the corpses of thousands of toads, centipedes, snakes, and myriad small furries, but it was important data that needed to be collected.
As Matt gradually lost muscle function and mobility, he did more computer work, helping with the park's website and interpreting data from its extensive camera trap program. You may have seen him give a presentation at Saguaro on any number of subjects. Matt had a knack for getting people to appreciate critters, especially the scary ones that bite and sting. He was proud of the work he did, and probably nothing more so than being a contributing author and photographer in Lizards of the American Southwest.
Two days after Matt died, I biked the 8-mile loop at Saguaro East in his honor. After a mesmerizing sunset, I raced downhill back to the parking lot in the deepening dusk. My exhilaration peaked when a nighthawk appeared beside me. It paced me on the left as it banked and dived to catch moths, swerved to the right, and then flew directly ahead of me, always within a few meters as we sped through the dimming desert. Finally, it veered away and disappeared into the dark. I knew it was Matt, showing me that he was free.
That feeling reminded me of many adventures with Matt and appreciating the natural world through his eyes. Face-to-knees with a massive moose in Rocky Mountain National Park, skinny-dipping in the San Pedro River, or just wandering around Portal enjoying its incredible diversity of birds and bugs, it always meant more with Matt.
The night Matt died, the meteor show was mostly a bust, but at Rosemont, even the stars that move imperceptibly were spectacular. And there was one prodigious display of cosmic disintegration that I'll never forget: A huge, orange fireball blazed low across the sky and broke apart into flaring bits just above the horizon.
To Matt, the prospect of Rosemont becoming an industrial wasteland with no room for rattlesnakes, tarantula hawks, or gazing at a million stars was a tragic injustice. He cared very deeply for all the living beings that share this beautiful Earth with us. His family honored his values by suggesting donations in his honor to Sky Island Alliance, his favorite conservation group.
A few Saturdays ago—Matt's birthday—a magnitude 5.2 earthquake rippled and rattled through the old stone homes of Portal. Matt has not finished speaking to us. My wish for Matt's legacy is that we listen, and we find in our hearts the same respect and appreciation he had for wildlife.