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Rattled

It makes our hearts pound and our palms sweat. But superstition and folklore have poisoned our minds against Texas’ scariest snake.

By April 1998Comments

A lifelong fascination with deadly creatures inspired Gordon Grice’s The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators, a series of ruminative essays about the black widow and other dangerous denizens of the Great Plains and Southwest. This excerpt deals with Texas’ most dreaded resident, the rattlesnake. Grice is a contributing editor of Oklahoma Today and a lecturer in English and humanities. He lives in Guymon, Oklahoma.

IT LIES HALF-COILED IN A STAND of dusty green weeds, its jaw against the ground to catch the vibrations of any moving thing. Its body, patterned with the colors of dead grass and earth, is touching a stack of iron pipe. Its forked black tongue slips out of its closed mouth, slashes in several directions, and slips back in. It is licking up particles of airborne scent and brushing them against the mass of olfactory nerves in the roof of its mouth. Its pupils, which would be only slits in the sun, have ballooned in the near dark.

The rattlesnake has stopped to wait at the turning of a scent-path. The prey, whatever it is, has the habit of following the shape of these discarded pipes. The rattlesnake is still except for its active tongue, which slides out every few seconds. I don’t see the field mouse arrive. He is suddenly there, tentative in his movements. His coat is pale brown on top and white on bottom; his eyes are the sleek brown of apple seeds. He stops, runs to one side, stops, runs back the other direction. He seems to know something is wrong, but probably that’s my imagining. I look to the snake and can’t see it—only dirt and weeds and scraps of iron. I blink a few times, and there it is in exactly the same place, my eyes and brain finally interpreting its pattern. The mouse is a few inches from the safety of the pipes, but he darts around in the open. Does he smell the snake? I can’t decide whether I smell it or not. The mouse runs onto a higher clump of dirt to look around and sniff. But it’s not a clump of dirt. He is standing on a thick loop of the snake. The snake does not move.

A blurred movement, the rustle of one weed—something happens too fast for me to see. The mouse leaps into the air but makes no sound. The snake isn’t moving now, but it’s watching with the heat-sensing pits below its eyes. Its strike, gauged by means of the pits, has hit home. The pits work with heat as human eyes do with light, creating stereoscopic “vision” and thus a fine discrimination of direction and distance.

The mouse rolls on his side, breathing heavily, spasms rocking the forelegs and head. The snake waits. After a long while, it slips closer. Its tongue runs over the mouse, which is still twitching. Then it swallows the mouse headfirst, the hollow tube of its glottis pushing to the front of its mouth so that it can breathe while it eats, its delicate bones momentarily separating, its muscles working and rippling. The swallowing is a long process; the mouse remains partly visible for perhaps five minutes. Before he disappears entirely, I see a hind leg twitch, and then for a long while only the mouse’s dark tail hangs out, and then it is gone.

NOTHING RILES A TEXAN LIKE A RATTLESNAKE. The reptile may be a state icon, but it is a venerable, not a beloved, one: Its status as symbol derives not from fondness but from fright (and a vicarious sense of power). The snake’s aggression and toxicity account for endless horror stories; some are true and some are tall tales. Folklorist J. Frank Dobie devoted an entire book to rattlesnake lore. There are ten rattlesnake species and subspecies in Texas, some thirty species between Canada and Argentina—and many of them have subspecies too, for a total of more than ninety.

The Western diamondback is the most common, accounting for almost all the serious rattlesnake bites reported in Texas every year. But other species are equally or more lethal. The venom of a rattlesnake is a cocktail of diverse toxins. Each subspecies serves a different mix, and each snake makes individual variations on that recipe. The Mojave species’s neurotoxin is the most lethal of all.

Most rattler venoms break flesh down chemically. They help snakes partly digest prey before it is eaten. In fact, rattlesnake venoms evolved from digestive juices, and the poison gland of the rattlesnake is a specialized salivary gland. A good dose of venom makes a human’s limb burn with pain as the venom digests it. Chunks of skin and flesh may die and eventually fall off. Small animals usually die of shock long before the venom has softened them up, and the same can happen to a human. We can also die from such systemic effects as damage to the liver or kidneys, or from gangrene of the dead flesh.

Rattlesnakes are born venomous. They can already hunt for themselves. Some people claim that young rattlesnakes are more toxic than adults. A certain medical student, assuming the young harmless, handled one. He showed off for friends, telling them how ironic it was that such an emblem of fear could be handled freely. That’s the way most people get bitten: an urge to handle fire. These days the young doctor has nine fingers. A bigger snake is more likely to kill you because it has more venom to spend. That fact makes the diamondbacks, the biggest rattlesnakes, especially dangerous. Western diamondbacks generally have less patience for a human than most. They’ve been known to chase a man a short distance across open ground.

Rattlesnakes like to stay in holes in the ground when they are not hunting or basking, but they’re not equipped for digging. Their transitory hunting-season homes are shelters they acquire opportunistically—they simply find the place and move in, killing any occupant that objects. Rattlesnakes are often found in the former dens of prairie dogs, rabbits, and even badgers. They aren’t picky. They eat rodents of all kinds, cottontail rabbits, birds, a smorgasbord of lizards. Ground squirrels frequently grace the menu. A snake learns a particular hole has good eats. He returns again and again to this same burrow, where the resident ground squirrels deliver litter after doomed litter.

Like most snakes, rattlesnakes know many ways to move. A simple design makes them versatile. They can move in S-shaped curves, with the outer surfaces of each curve serving to brace the body so that it pushes forward. They can creep in a straight line by rippling the abdominal muscles. Some can sidewind, using loops of their bodies as feet and essentially walking across loose sand. Rattlers can even climb trees, in search of birds and their eggs. And they swim beautifully, holding their tails daintily above the water to keep their rattles dry.

If you want to know how big rattlers get, you can find any length you like, up to fifty feet, in the stories. As one researcher told me, “Snakes are like fish”—meaning the biggest are the ones that get away. Their dead bodies bloat to impressive girths, and their flensed skins stretch a couple of feet beyond their living capacity, supporting extravagant claims. Scientists draw the line at about eight feet and forty pounds. For what it’s worth, one prehistoric rattlesnake species went about twelve feet. But unlike mammals, snakes have no genetically determined size limits. They grow until they die. Their growth starts out fast and slows as they age, but generally a big snake is an old snake. The lifespan for most rattlesnakes seems to be around 25 years, although most rattlers never reach the “natural” age of death. They die long before they get huge, victims of disease or enemies. A pet theme of nature writers and scientists is the unfair hatred humans have for snakes. It is often claimed that adults teach children to hate and fear snakes early. I suspect learned fear is only part of the story. It seems to me there is really an innate fear of snakes, not only in humans but also in many other mammals. The rattlesnake has served as a kind of lightning rod for human hatred of snakes. Their venom provides a pragmatic reason for their killing, which can easily become a pretext even when other, less logical motives are the real ones.

Snakes as a group excel at scaring enemies. The rattlesnake has special equipment for this purpose. The rattler’s buzz is nothing like a rattle. It is something like trickling water, and something like dry leaves on cement. It nudges my subconscious first, and then I am aware of a tickle between my shoulder blades, and I know what I’m hearing. The recognition comes fast, but I am always disturbed by the feeling that the sound was there before I heard it. This effect is universal with humans. Its cause is unknown but perhaps resides in the ultrasonic portion of the sound. This reaction suggests that our fear of the rattler is instinctive, perhaps ingrained through long generations of human, and prehuman, danger.

In the American Southwest there’s a tradition of killing rattlesnakes as a point of etiquette. It goes back to at least the middle of the nineteenth century. The idea was to kill any rattler you found, even if it wasn’t threatening you, so that it couldn’t bite somebody else another day. Rattlesnake hunts or roundups are a ritualized, and commercialized, version of this old custom. Roundups reportedly began as a way for farmers to make their fields safer to work in. Today the rattlesnake roundup, like that held in Sweetwater, is a tourist attraction, featuring such amusements as measure-offs, cookouts, and bagging competitions. There’s something archetypal in these events; they’re like pagan celebrations of spring.

Whatever advantages the rattler’s venom may provide, they don’t include freedom from violence. Observers have seen horses go out of their way to trample rattlesnakes. Other hoofed herbivores—pronghorn antelope, deer, cattle, sheep, goats—also actively attack rattlesnakes. The extravagant violence between reptile and bird makes a more obvious kind of sense than the preemptive killings by hoof. Rattlesnake and mockingbird are natural enemies whose relation hinges on predation, the snake trying to eat the bird’s young, the bird getting nasty at first sight of the snake. A golden eagle will pluck a rattler from a vast expanse of wind-rippled grass. You see the silhouette rise into the sky: the bird’s wings slapping the air like sheets on the line, the snake twisting and knotting in the rugged talons that have already dealt him fatal wounds.

The rattler is lethal at one end and scary at the other, but in between it’s a tube of protein irresistible to many predators. Hawks and owls take rattlers, but so do some less obvious avian predators, like wild turkeys and domestic chickens. The roadrunner specializes in rattlers and never seems to get bitten. Other rattlesnake predators include domestic cats and pigs, skunks, badgers, bobcats, coyotes, and foxes, and other snakes like king snakes and coachwhips.

To some animals, the rattler is only a potential meal; to an astounding number of others, it is something so fearsome it must be either fled from or killed on sight. No other animal provokes such visceral reactions from other species. When I was a child, my father killed a rattler near our yard. He decapitated it with a hoe, and I watched it pulse for what seemed like hours. The snake, a very small one, kept twitching, even after our white leghorn hens came and started to work on it with their beaks. At dusk I came back (I was forbidden to, but I came). It was still alive enough to shrink from my touch.

Folklore says a decapitated rattlesnake doesn’t die until sundown. The restless one I watched as a child was no aberration; beheaded rattlers often make this lore credible. Their movements diminish gradually, and no moment of death can be specified. But the movements clearly outlast an injury that should, according to everything we think we know, prove instantly fatal. We approach the rattler with such an awareness of its deadly potential that its failure to die neatly becomes terrifying.

We would like to think death is a crisp fracture: living, and then not living. In fact, there is no clear division between life and death in any animal. Death isn’t still. It is a continuation of what has gone before. The digestive juices in our gut lose their inhibitions and go to work on the organs that hold them. The bacteria that have been part of our bodies go on living. Suddenly freed to partake of the feast they have always dwelt inside, they prosper as never before. Our tissues, if left alone, take on an array of strange forms as microscopic life converts them. The blood gels, the breath quiets, the tiny strands of lightning inside the nerve tissues disappear. Death is real, but it is slow and sloppy. Dead, we are not stilled; we are activated, changed.

On the highway ahead, i see the sinuous curves of a rattlesnake in motion. He moves on the hot asphalt in liquid esses. He is doomed. Cars and trucks rush by, some straddling the snake, others swerving to miss him (perhaps these drivers know the legend of the mechanic killed by a fang embedded in a flat tire). Soon one of them will crush him, by chance or by choice. He halts and buzzes on the yellow line. I pull over and wait my opportunity to chase him off the road, but the traffic is heavy. A one-ton pickup finally swerves to hit him.

I watch his body spasm into twisting arcs, the white belly and patterned back showing by turns. It is the old dance of animal flesh: the dying, and the determination not to die.

From the book The Red Hourglass. Copyright ©1998 by Gordon Grice. Reprinted by arrangement with Delacorte Press, an imprint of Dell Publishing, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

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