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May 2000

Love Thy Rattlesnake

Encountering a rattlesnake is a splendid moment in time, a cherished wilderness event--at least that's the view of Arizona researchers trying to change public perception of all things fanged.

I was raised to believe that the underworld is not the sole domain of Satan’s spawn, that evil incarnate is right here on Earth, slithering around, preying on the innocent, and perpetuating the eternal nastiness it started in the Garden of Eden.

And right now, it’s headed straight toward me at a steady clip.

My leg muscles tighten and my veins flood with adrenaline as a deep primordial instinct, combined with my east Texas cultural bias, kicks in. My mind tells me to be reasonable, ignore my lifelong beliefs that serpents are emissaries of death and darkness. But logic stands little chance when you’re face to fang with a blacktail rattlesnake that’s almost 3 feet long–and closing fast.

“How beautiful.” The comment slices through my anxiety and I glance over at Harry Greene, who’s peering through binoculars at the snake he knows well. It’s No. 34 Female. “Look at that beautiful head. She’s flicking her tongue to find a rodent or rabbit trail.”

While Greene gushes admiringly at the snake still slithering my way, his logic gives way to my fears and I take a few steps back. Much to my relief, the snake curls up next to a rock. “A resting coil,” notes Dave Hardy, Greene’s research partner and another man who obviously knows his reptiles.

As I try to jump-start my lungs, I think about a passage from Greene’s book, Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature in which he explains his motivation for traipsing around the backcountry in pursuit of poisonous serpents: “I was curious to find out what it was like to be a snake.”

Beyond that, he believes snakes “are an icon for wilderness” and help us understand and appreciate “the profound uncertainties one lives with, and learns from, in remote places…. My goal…is to help change society’s attitude about snakes. I look forward to the day when people come back from a hike bragging about the beautiful rattlesnake they saw, just as they might cherish an encounter with a bobcat or peregrine falcon.”

I stare at No. 34 Female. While always eager to learn more about wilderness icons and “profound uncertainties,” I can’t help but wonder how anyone could see beauty in a snake or consider a chance meeting a cherished encounter. The cold fact of the matter is that snakes make my skin crawl. I’d rather find maggots in my oatmeal.

Which is not a great attitude for a backpacker to have, since just about every hiking destination in the United States is also snake habitat. That’s why I’m here with Greene and Hardy. It’s time for me to probe the soft underbelly of Crotalus horridus and family, to consider the positive-even humanlike-side of rattlers, and try to swallow some deep-seeded fears.

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