Saturday, May 21, 2005


If you go out walking much in the countryside here in central PA, you're bound to encounter your share of snakes. Not all the time, but they're certainly there. The most common ones to see are your average black ratsnakes. Fairly large, not all that thrilling, but still nice. Once I got a little too close to one and was bitten, but it just stung a little. They aren't poisonous, of course. You also see garter snakes, though not as often. They seem to be more active; you rarely see them just sitting there sunning themselves, as you do the ratsnakes--they're almost always in motion. Aesthetically pleasing, but elusive. On occasion, I've also seen a few watersnakes, swimming along in the Susquehanna--not sure of their specific nomenclature, however.

That leaves the timber rattlesnakes: the only poisonous snakes you have any real chance of encountering. Theoretically, there are also copperheads about, but they're very reclusive beasts; neither I nor anyone I know has ever actually seen one in the wild. But as for the rattlesnakes, which usually aren't that common either: either they're a lot more prevalent this year, or I've just had an unusual stroke of luck--so far, I've seen three of them, two of which were in a nature preserve, Rider Park, where I go frequently but had never seen them before. In the first instance, I was walking with my brother, la la la, I saw what at first glance appeared to be a normal ol' ratsnake, until WHOA, it started rattling like crazy. It was on one side of the trail; we gingerly edged past it on the other side. These aren't diamondbacks; the timber rattler's bite isn't fatal to a healthy adult, but I still don't recommend it, as a habit. It turned to face us as we moved, but that was all. It did not stop rattling--once you get these things going, they don't like to stop. The second sighting, I was out on a longish hike (nine miles) with my father and brother. There's a vista where rattlesnakes are frequently seen sunning themselves, although not generally on days as cool as this one was. But there it was! And it wasn't in a comatose state, either--it observed us with that inscrutably snakey gaze as we went by. Then the next day, in Rider again, I was keeping a fast pace, trying to get a decent heart rate going, and I would have cruised right on past it without seeing it if it hadn't sounded the alarm. Geez, dude. Chill out a bit, eh?

There's a pretty sharp divide in the way I anthropomorphize poisonous versus non-poisonous snakes. The former are benign, or even friendly--even big, potentially dangerous ones like anacondas and pythons. Whereas the latter--though cool--are pure EE-vil. This is especially true of rattlesnakes. There's something about that rattle, along with their scary milkwhite eyes, that is deeply unnerving in a visceral, prehistoric way. One might say the same for cobras, what with the hoods and all, but with them there's more of a sense of mesmerizing, sophisticated evil--you picture them bobbing around as snakecharmers play exotic tunes to them. Rattlesnakes seem more basic and brutal. Obviously, there's no logic to any of this. Timber rattlesnakes are approximately the least dangerous poisonous snakes around; they're very shy, and they certainly won't attack without serious provocation. But the impression persists nonetheless.

It would be very easy to tie this into a political comment, but I think it's safe to assume that you, the discerning reader, have already made the connection, so I will merely beg your forgiveness for subjecting you to this long, rambling discourse. But my basic point is this: snakes are cool. End of story.


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