Sunday, May 6, 2007


Aug. 8, 2006
I’m looking for rattlesnakes. I’ve tromped the prairies far and wide this year and while I’ve seen sleek earless lizards and fat horned toads and a bazillion mammals, I’ve yet to see any snake at all. I know they’re there, I just haven’t seen one yet, and they’re a touchstone. So I’m out looking.
It’s 4 p.m. and it’s hot. My fancy watch tells me it’s 105degrees. It’s the best time to look for snakes because, being ectothermic (cold blooded), they can’t regulate their own body heat and a core temp of 105 would kill them deader than a hammer. So right now they’re holed up in the shade, not moving at all, waiting for the sun to go down so they can slither out and pursue a meal.
I’ve walked five miles to get here, across the lumpy, sere prairie, which is anything but flat. I’m pleasantly winded and soaked with sweat. My muscles are limber and move easily, and the aches and pains of 45 years of hard living are bearable.
I throw my rucksack down and swallow another liter of water. A liter an hour to stay hydrated. I lean my rifle against the rucksack and cover both with a poncho. I don heavy work gloves and make sure my camera is secure in its belt case.
As I survey the rocky wash I’ve chosen to hunt, I think I must cast an odd figure. I’m wearing an old ballcap and sunglasses, a gray tee shirt and ragged khaki shorts, $200 boots and $20 socks. Gotta take care of them feet. They got me in here and they’re the only thing that will get me out. On my belt, in addition to the camera, is a utility tool, E&E bag with a first aid kit, mag pouch for the M-4, and a solid, worn, but eminently reliable Hi-Power.
I enter the wash and start my search. It's an exercise in patience. Before I move a finger I look carefully and hard and decide where I want to end up, where I'll place my feet and hands. No sudden grabs or movements. A rule to live by in close snake country. I know they'll strike if they feel threatened or cornered. I know they can envenomate me. I know I'm far from help.
There are no secrets in the wash. The snakes know I'm here. They "hear" movement by picking up ground vibration. Though they have no external ears, they have essentially the same hearing setup I have -- tiny bones and a fluid-filled canal and all of it wired to the brain. Oh, they hear fine. And they snatch molecules from the environment with their flickering tongues. They deposit the environmental news in their Jacobsen’s organ, which is something I certainly don't have. In line of sight, they peer at you through perfectly good eyes, too. Their eyes are adapted for night vision and close up work, but they see fine. On top of that, they view the world through the infrared with thermoreceptive pits located between eye and nostril. The back of each pit is lined with a membrane remarkably similar to the retina, but able to differentiate heat rather than light energy.
I carefully move along, looking for the shadowed crevice that will allow an approach and a good, long, safe study with neither snake nor myself in jeopardy. I finally find the spot, a relatively wide crevice on the southwest wall of the wash. There are scattered small rocks in front and a clean, nearly level limestone floor at ground level. I see where rainwater collects occasionally and see thousands of petrified univalves in the matrix of the sedimentary stone. This was sea bed some 65 million years ago.
Carefully I belly down on the hot rock and peer into the crevice and wait for my eyes to adjust to the dimness within. Slowly the dappled brown and black pattern emerges, and when my mind finally makes sense of what I’m seeing, I’m looking a fat prairie rattler in the face from no more than two feet. The snake is calm and does little but peer back at me, tongue flicking in and out. It’s body expands and contracts as it breathes, and the tail raises and gives a halfhearted shake, not even producing a buzz. A great sense of peace washes over me. The snake is in its element, exactly where it’s supposed to be, doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. I’m seeing a wonder of nature, on nature’s terms. As we gaze at each other, it occurs to me that there can be very few humans indeed who’ve had this experience. In many ways, it is a sacred honor.
I find that I don’t want to inject any more of my humanity into this place, this time, this experience. So no flash, no picture. There will be other opportunities. Carefully I back away, then slowly stand. My watch tells me I’ve been communing with the Crotalus viridis viridis for 45 minutes. My back is stiff and my jaw sore from clenching. My big, goofy smile hurts at first but is pathognomonically appropriate for the moment. I want to shout and clap and sing and celebrate but I do none of those things. “Thanks, snake,” I mutter, then carefully make my way back to my rucksack and rifle. On the way I spy a beautiful thistle, light green with closed white flowers, seemingly nailed in the center of another piece of one-time seabed. How can it grow there? Is there no end to natures wonder? Of course not. I capture images of this one and decide to see if the fellow at the Arboretum can identify it for me.
The five miles back to my classic beater is a joy. The walking is hard and it’s still hot and I’m still sweaty. But I’m loose and my tread is light and fluid and prairie joys abound. Jackrabbits lope and thirteen-lined ground squirrels skitter, hawks ride thermals overhead, and the sudden flush of a dove reveals a pair of brilliant white eggs in a prairie-grass bower. My rucksack is lighter by six liters of water, the M-4 a familiar, pleasant presence.
I’m not one with the prairie. I could never be, not in a million years. I’m too civilized, too human. But I’m closer than most people even know you can get.
The Arboretum fellow tells me the thistle is anything but a thistle. Rather, it’s a ten-petal evening star, Mentzelia decapetala. Saying I love this place doesn’t even come close to describing the song in my heart.

1 comment:

  1. Shaun, you have been doing this for 8 years, and I didn't discover you until January of this year? Shame on me!