Wednesday, May 9, 2007

viridis part two

May 10, 2007
It’s a Sunday morning and I’m finally taking the time to put aside the busyness of too many irons in the fire. I can feel the tension draining from my soul as I stride across the prairie, loaded down with rifle, rucksack and camera.
Walking the uneven ground feels good. My Achilles tendon rehab is coming along nicely, and while it’s still sore and gimpy, it’s definitely stronger than it was a week ago. My heart rate is up with exertion, muscles move smoothly as I motor along beneath the inverted cerulean bowl that is the enormous sky. Air moves in and out of my lungs the way it should, and the sweat I’m producing proves that I’m getting a good workout.
It’s coolish this morning and the Sun, hanging fat and fiery just above the horizon, hasn’t had the time to do it’s radiant warming thing. The air is still and close and filled with birdsong and the smell of a good spring; damp earth and growing grass and opening wildflowers. There’s a west breeze but it’s not annoying, no more than 10 miles an hour.
A grin grows beneath my nose as I take it all in. The wildflower eruption has happened, and I’m like a kid in a toy store, scurrying here, there, everywhere, looking and oohing and ahhing. Surrounded by an enormous quantity of sheer beauty, the realization of my good fortune strikes me with palpable force. How many people get to see this stuff?
I don’t know the wildflowers as well as I’d like to, so I’ve decided to record and describe them, then look them up so I’ll have the proper names. Watching me, an observer would think me mad as I dash about, shedding ruck and rifle and snapping pictures and scribbling descriptions. I have to admit it’s a comic dance, for after climbing back into my ruck and taking up my rifle, I seldom move more than 10 meters before ruck thuds back to the ground, followed (gently, of course) by the M-4, and out comes the camera and notebook.
I know, in theory, how to do the taxonomic descriptions of the flowering plants. I find myself absorbed in the details; type and shape of leaves, number of buds and blooms and petals, location of the plant, etc. No matter where I stop there’s an entire world of wonder at my feet. No worries about the twenty-first century can survive this sensual delight.
The Draba Milk-vetch, Astragalus spatulatus, is a riot of lavender and white, glowing, it seems, in the morning light. Perched atop a crumbling limestone outcropping, it's surrounded by puccoons, Lithospermum spp., ground huggers with fat, fleshy leaves and delicate orange blossoms. Everywhere I look I see the white flash and dark green of mountain lily, sometimes called star-of-Bethlehem, Leucocrinum montanum. I find narrow-leaf musineon or wild parsley, and the glowing yellow and sharp-edged leaves of the prairie buck bean, Thermopsis rhombifolia. My brother, the real expert, says he didn’t realize they bloomed this early. And nearly everywhere atop the crumbling limestone, are the little white, five-petaled flowers of Hoods Phlox, Phlox hoodsii. I wonder at the powerful beauty of such tiny jewels.
Far too soon I've filled one memory card in the camera, so I swap it out and move on, with only 16 Mb left to record any surprises. I catch something odd from the corner of my eye, something I've never seen here before, though I've tramped this particular native prairie pasture all my life. From my position downslope and to the west of a familiar outcropping, I see a flash of blue sky through a small blowout cave in the rock. "That'll make a neat picture," I say to myself as I scramble toward the opening.
The blowout is small and shallow, only about two feet wide and two feet deep. It's right at the crest of the hill, and roofed by a mere three inches of decomposing limestone, which has eroded through and left a jagged six-inch hole open to the enormous prairie sky. Thud goes the pack again, and I eagerly worm my head and shoulders and camera inside. I see a small burrow at the back of the blowout, and there is clear evidence that some creature has been spending time in there. "I'm glad it's not snake season," I think to myself, "because it would really be stupid to stick my head in here if it was."
I take my pictures, shrug back into the rucksack, and head for another outcropping a half-mile to the east. Something there I want to check out.
Last fall I stuffed an old ammo can with MRE's and bottled water and shoved them into another, slightly larger, blowout on this outrcopping. I was curious as to how they would stand up to the freezing temps of winter. So after five months, it's time to check. The blowout is filled with tumbleweeds, and I'll have to pull them out to reach the ammo can. As I reach in and grab the thistles, I think again how stupid it would be to reach in there bare handed if it were snake season. But it's not, right? It's early April yet and it's been pretty cool these last several weeks.
But the buzzing sound that booms from the blowout quickly changes my certainty about the date of onset of snake season. As I leap back, a corner of my mind notices once again how very different that rattlesnake buzz is from any other sound. I stand back and let my heart rate go down and wonder if I can clear this blowout a little, enough to photograph the snake, without getting bit or, importantly, without injuring the snake. This is a perfect opportunity to get some good pictures of the Prairie Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis viridis.
Fortunately, there is an old cedar fencepost nearby. I use it to gently pry the tumbleweeds from the opening, and soon I've revealed the ammo can with a fat, meter-long rattlesnake coiled up next to it. Cool!
The snake is quite concerned and buzzes away madly, rearing up in a defensive posture. His tongue flickers in and out, testing the air to find out what kind of idiot is bothering him. He's a lot more calm than I am, though, and doesn't even feint a strike when the fencepost passes inches from his snout. I fire up the camera and snap as many pictures as I can.
I can't help but marvel at the beautiful perfection of the snake's form. His mottled camouflage blends perfectly with the limestone, and I know from experience it blends perfectly with the shortgrass prairie, too. I'm close enough to see the thermoreceptive pits on either side of his snout, and marvel at their ability to sense warmth. From what I've read, the snake can sense temperature differences measured in thousandths of a degree. What a remarkable adaptation. He can combine his normal vision with the picture painted by his heat sensors for a kind of quadraphonic view of the world. From everything we know, he sees the world precisely, at least at short range, and can strike with pinpoint accuracy.
After about fifteen minutes, I decide I've bothered the snake enough for one day. I shrug back into my gear and stride off across the prairie, leaving him to his own devices. Only later does it occur to me that I never for an instant considered killing the serpent. And I was raised to kill 'em all. What a remarkable change.
As I march across the prairie I stumble upon a pair of ground bowers. One is cleverly built into the east edge of a cow chip, and filled with four purple-speckled white eggs. The other, along the bank of a dry draw, holds three brownish eggs, each lightly speckled with darker brown spots. I snap pictures of the ground nests too, and hope to be able to identify them later. Larry Snyder is kind enough to respond to my e-mail with the news that they are Horned Lark and Lark Sparrow nests. Thanks, Larry.
A week later I return to finally check the ammo can, forgotten in last week's excitement. As I approach I spot another rattlesnake, this one only a foot long and with just two rattle segments and a button. He must have been born last fall. He postures and buzzes too, and once again I snap some pictures. This young snake is exquisitely marked, and his camouflage blends into the limestone and dust so well that I'd have surely missed him had I not been looking. Considering how tasty prairie raptors (Swainson's Hawks, etc.) find young rattlesnakes, this one's camouflage seems perfect. My picture snapping finally bothers him enough that he slithers into a grapefruit-sized hole in the crumbling limestone. He glares at me and buzzes madly. "Go away! I'm very angry and I'm very dangerous!" Smiling, I take the hint and back off.
I look at the outcropping with new eyes, noting the many holes and burrows as if for the first time. Though I've clambered all over this mound for years, sat in the sun relaxing and even brewing coffee at times, the truth of the place never dawned on me. I realize now that beneath this nondescript limestone hump lies a snake den, a place snakes come to from miles around to shelter against winter's killing cold. Remarkable.
The location is a secret and I'll guard it well. I know people who would delight in tearing the den open and killing each and every snake. I'm not on a "save-the-snakes" crusade, and care little what people do in their own little worlds. If they gotta kill snakes, they gotta kill snakes. Just not on my property, not in my little world.
I walk away with a joyous song in my heart, my soul refreshed and at peace.


  1. Have enjoyed the pictures of your adventures, both in image files and in your words! That's a good looking snake!

  2. So, were the MREs and the water OK? Didn't the water expand and break the bottles?

    1. As I recall the MRE's were fine, and the water bottles intact, but the water was cloudy with lime sediment. Something about the freeze-thaw cycle seems to precipitate at least some of the dissolved minerals.