Zero at the bone: in defense of rattlers |

Zero at the bone: in defense of rattlers

A narrow fellow in the grass

Occasionally rides;

You may have met him, – did you not?

His notice sudden is. …

But never met this fellow

Attended or alone,

Without a tighter breathing,

And zero at the bone.

–Emily Dickinson

The screaming of jays on the back porch awoke us and continued through breakfast. Going outside to start my weekend chores, I heard pressurized water coming out of a nozzle out back and went to investigate.

The jays had something to scream about.

The three-foot rattler on the steps was making the water sound as it followed every movement of my rapt Siamese, sitting just beyond its striking range.

Rattler are like wolves: universally hated, feared and misunderstood. In my 20 years here, I’ve heard all the wild stories: the guy watching TV gets up for a beer and comes back to find a rattler curled up in the Lazy Boy, the woman who starts to get out of the shower and finds a snake on the bath mat. My favorite is my neighbor Phil’s story: He’s asleep buck naked on a hot summer night, hears a noise, and goes outside to investigate. He hears another noise, looks down, and there’ s a rattler between his feet staring up at the family jewels.

I met a guy in Arizona who was an expert on a certain rattler species. John caught them by lowering his hat slowly onto their heads then grabbing their tails. The snakes hung helplessly, paralyzed by their own body weight, as he lowered them into a sack.

Only the very young, very old, or people with impaired immune systems die from snake bite. John had been bitten seven times on his hands. He only sought medical attention once, at the insistence of his freaked-out roommates. Instead, “I lie down for 15 minutes to slow the poison’s effect then take aspirin to thin my blood. It’s intense, intense pain for about 24 hours, and then you’re OK.” I had always heard that rattler-bitten flesh became necrotic and black, but his scar tissue was normal.

I’ve found rattlers to be perfect gentlemen: handsome, retiring, accommodating, preferring to keep their own company and respect mine. You often aren’t aware of a snake until you’re right on top on it; they only buzz when you are too near and then only briefly. My friend Dan spent a pleasant hour under a tree picnicking before he realized he was seated next to a big, silent rattler.

Being deaf, rattlers sense their mammalian prey’s body heat with depressions near their noses; hence their name “pit vipers.” Once, just before I dispatched him, a snake would rattle as I passed a warm shovel over its head then stop when I moved it.

My five cats have alerted me to every buzzworm I’ve seen on my acreage. Unlike dogs, cats will rarely attack, preferring to just stare as the snake rattles furiously – and you hear it. Once I thought just smacking a snake with the flat of a shovel and not severing its head would kill it; fifteen minutes later, the “dead” snake was up and buzzing at Cuzco. After this grisly incident, I vowed to never again kill a rattler.

Dan and I were backpacking in Granite Chief Wilderness when we noticed a large rattler on a slope above the trail, enjoying the morning sun. We continued, but soon realized it was the wrong direction and turned around. We re-checked the snake’s position, then I noticed a dead ground squirrel in the trail. When I poked it with my stick, it lurched away drunkenly a few feet, dragging its hindquarters, before collapsing.

In a flash, the scenario was clear: We had interrupted the rattler’s breakfast. It knew that the squirrel wasn’t going anywhere, so was biding its time until the neurotoxins it had injected took effect.

I could use any number of flowery and noble words to describe this drama – “pathetic,” “vicious,” “evil,” “poor little squirrel” – but none of them would apply. Nature cannot afford to pass value judgments. In and of itself, it is no more “cruel” or “unforgiving” than it is “beautiful” and “beneficent.” It simply is. The sacred and profane, sublime and ridiculous coexist in what John Updike calls a “green chaos,” which draws no distinction between the fate of the rattler, the squirrel or the human observers.

In many indigenous American cultures, heaven was underground, and snakes the intermediaries of the gods. Mesoamerica worshiped the feathered rattler Quetzalcoatl as a symbol of the marriage of earth and sky. Hopi shamans perform rituals with rattlers to ensure rain for their corn.

Is the “zero at the bone” thrill we feel at seeing a rattler akin to religious ecstasy? If I am ever bitten, I’ll offer prayers of thanks to Quetzalcoatl that I’m not a squirrel.

This article was originally published 10/13/1999.

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