Learning to live, let live with rattlers
Gardens have always been places of contemplation and philosophizing. Last week, I had an unusual experience along these lines in my garden.
My Stagecoach house is on 10 acres, one of which has a fence through which cottontails pass laughingly en route to my jalapeño flowers.
On July 20, I wrote this to friends: “Was walking across the yard this morning and heard water under pressure by my rose bush. As I approached it, Chispa did that cat’s straight-up-and-back leap – and I KNEW it wasn’t water.
“Sure enough, the biggest rattler I’ve seen in years was under the bush. I immediately short-leashed Chispa and shooed Bob [another cat] away, who was now excitedly orbiting. I went into the spare room to get my camera then was going to get the rake and a bucket to put the snake in.
“The phone rang, and it was my insurance agent. She said, ‘How are you?’ and I said, ‘Uh, well …’ and filled her in. She said, ‘Oh, God!” then told me all about rattler adventures SHE’S had and to be careful. Naturally, when I went back out with the camera, the snake was gone.
“There’s a big rock pile about 10 feet beyond the fence I’ve always called the ‘ground squirrel incubator.’ Well, DUH, that’s not the only species that lives there! The rattlers and squirrels have a pretty sweet symbiotic relationship going on.”
My friends’ reactions to my little excitement varied. My co-workers were horrified. Clark told me to shoot the snake (yeah, right – what a disastrous farce THAT would be!). Linda said, “God, I’d never sleep outside again!” Dan just chuckled and was disappointed I didn’t take the snake’s photo. Mike suggested I try to establish a relationship with the snake through “shamanic journeying.” I scoffed then apologized for being a cynical journalist. Interestingly, the person with the most lukewarm reaction was my 81-year-old mother.
Last Wednesday, I was heading out to the yard with a cup of coffee, and a 3-foot snake was slowly crossing the middle of the crispy lawn in the day’s first heat. I gamely tried to convince myself it was just a gopher snake, but it was Mr. Buzzworm. I decided to watch it – from a distance of 10 feet – for a while before heading to the shed for the rake.
The snake clearly knew I was there, but never rattled. When my shadow crossed its head, it began to assume the strike position, but changed its mind. I stood there with my immense cranial capacity and Bible-guaranteed “dominion over the beasts.” Being a reptile, the snake’s brain has basically two functions: reaction and non-reaction. But it was the first species to decide on the correct and vastly more intelligent option: just leave each other alone.
As I followed Mr. Rattler with queasy fascination as it wound around shrubs and in and out of the chicken-wire holes, I had many thoughts. I admired its beautiful coloration and sinuous movements. I realized the futility of moving it out into the field, knowing it would just come back to the ready food source it shares with who knows how many cousins, sisters-in-law and nephews in the rock pile.
I contemplated how rural homeowners must accept the good with the bad – the coyote that ate two of my cats in one week, and the rattlers. This, of course, lead to thoughts on why we label some animals “good” versus “bad.” I wondered to who, after all, the yard really “belongs.” Finally, I wondered how I would explain myself if the meter reader pulled up and asked, “What are you staring at?”
When the snake had crossed the driveway, I went back into the house. Shortly, from the kitchen window, I saw that it was “gone,” which really meant it had curled up for a nap with a full belly of fur and tiny bones under the deck on which I was about to eat breakfast. Under an adjacent bird feeder, the last place I’d seen the snake, oblivious squirrels and a meadowlark foraged.
I stopped killing rattlers years ago after a bloody, botched attempt of which I am now ashamed. The snake’s visits are a good reminder to me to more carefully place my hands and feet. I now walk to my outside bed with a flashlight and jiggle it before climbing in. And I’ve calculated how long it will take me to get to the emergency clinic by Smith’s.
I’ve read that humans have just three instinctive fears: falling, loud noises and snakes. The squirrels and larks instinctively accept their role of being eaten by the rattler, then carry on. Knowing I risk being bitten, can I use my big brain to overcome my instinctual fear and follow their lead?
Maybe this realization puts me on the road to shamanic journeying after all.
Pat Devereux is the news editor of The Appeal. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1224.