26 October 2010


I highly recommend the story posted by Matt Miller at his blog on the Nature Conservancy website. Matt reflects on a hike he took through Idaho's Hell's Canyon, and on the atavistic fears which surfaced in him when he nearly stepped on a western diamondback rattlesnake. His thoughts about the remainder of the hike, about rattlesnakes and the role they play in nature, and about their position among our myths regarding predators in general and reptiles in particular, are evocative and worth reflecting upon.

I especially like his suggestion that "scary creatures offer another benefit we don't usually consider -- humility ... that prickly fear we feel in the presence of a large spider, or a poisonous snake, transports us to a time when nature was not something 'out there,' but rather a series of real, complicated relationships with living creatures. The rattle jolts us back to a reality where nature was not just an idyllic walk in the park. It reminds us that humans are a species profoundly shaped, not by cities and technology, but by other animals and our relationships with them. Lose the rattlesnake, and we lose a part of what makes us human."

I grew up in the farming country of northern Montana, and my youth included many Boy Scout camping trips into the nearby Rocky Mountains. Living among wildlife was as natural to me as breathing. In my mid-twenties, during a solo three-day hike into the Tortolita Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona, I had a moment of epiphany similar to Matt's. I carried a six-foot long walking staff intended to give rattlers something to strike at besides my leg. As a backup measure, my holstered .22 magnum revolver was belted handily to the side of my backpack.

After being dropped off at the trailhead shortly after sunrise, I entered Wild Burro Canyon, thoroughly enjoying the morning light and the symphony of desert bird calls. My oblivious delight was shocked back to reality when I realized that the stick lying across the trail a few feet ahead was actually a motionless rattler sunning itself. Instant pulse elevation and adrenaline flow. I decided to simply leave the trail and circle around the snake, being careful where I placed my boots among the creosote, bursage and brittlebush which could easily hide other rattlers.

But it soon became apparent that the Tortolitas were literally crawling with rattlesnakes that day. Only a few minutes later I heard that unmistakeable dry buzzing. I froze, and looked down to see a rattlesnake two feet away from my foot, in the shade of a low bush which brushed my leg. I slowly reached up to grasp my .22, took careful aim .... and did not fire. I knew I had the power to take this life, but I also realized that I was the intruder in his world. After a long pause, I slowly placed my staff between my leg and the snake, and even more slowly stepped away. The standoff ended peaceably.

For the rest of that day I was jumpy. By the time I found a suitable campsite (a tiny platform of rock formed where a stream forked, then reconverged), I'd seen or heard a score of rattlers. My thought was that being surrounded by flowing water would hopefully discourage any reptilian visitors from seeking my body warmth during the night. None did (although on subsequent camping trips in Arizona and New Mexico, I did awaken to feel a reptilian body stirring against mine. Another story for another time.).

I learned to relax, and for the next two days throughly enjoyed scouting the canyons and central basin of the Tortolitas. As described in a previous post, I was privileged to sight the resident herd of wild horses. In a moment of high (or low) comedy, at one point I was sunbathing nude at my campsite when I suddenly heard nearby voices. In a flash I covered my nether parts with a shirt, just before a hat, then a face bobbed above the edge of the ledge nearby. Embarrassed, I pretended to nap as thirty members of the Southern Arizona Hiking Club walked past in single file, and they pretended I wasn't there. Later in the day I encountered the group resting in the meager shade of a palo verde tree, and we chatted as though nothing unusual had transpired.

That hike marked a turning point in my attitude toward reptiles in particular, and predators in general. By the time I became caretaker of Canelo Hills Cienega, one of the Nature Conservancy's southern Arizona preserves (which was home to four species of rattlesnakes), I was also the proud father of a preschool son. During our walks we talked about snakes and bats and deer and birds and coyotes and trees and frogs and people. When out driving, if we happened upon a snake sunning itself on a road, we would stop and shepherd it into the weeds and out of danger from passing cars and trucks. To this day, we both have fond memories of those years, even dreaming about them. Our time in Eden.

So thank you, Matt, for both your own reflections and for the trip down memory lane. As you proposed regarding rattlesnakes, "Long may they slither through our reality, reminding us of the connections to nature that still remain deeply embedded in our genes, in our being."

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