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Venom without malice: On first meeting a rattlesnake

Rattlesnake moving across desert scrub in dappled light

A reptilian head appears from behind a large rock. Curious to decipher a species quite unlike the now-familiar collared lizard or whiptail, I sharpen my focus. And sharply, the threshold question is settled. This is a snake.

I am startled, but quickly my alarm gives way to the titillations of a comfortable danger. At a safe distance of 15 feet, I am free to stare, to marvel, to take in every detail of this creature’s form and extraordinary movement.

There is much to take in. Most striking at first is the speed at which she moves. A kind of fleetness that isn’t quite speed, but approaching something much more like speed than the lethargy of the captive snake. It is perhaps the difference between moving and being on the move – a particular affect of confidence and purpose. Perhaps I can say, without tilting too anthropomorphic, that she moves with muscular certainty.

Fleet without foot. Stance absent posture. Carriage while prone. I am utterly captivated, seeing as if for the first time a snake’s particular perfection of something that we share: a severely constrained physicality.

It takes nearly a full minute for her to reveal herself fully. Her camouflage is masterful, until the end. Three and one half feet of tawny russet pattern that perfectly mirror the dappled desert scrub. But then suddenly, a bit of inky unpleasantness – a jolt of black and white.

She finds a rocky fissure and disappears, those black rings on her white tail leaving me with no doubt about her identity. Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.

But now there are implications.

A venomous snake that remains on land taken over for human settlement tests a conservationist’s mettle like few other dilemmas. While it is true that snakes never hunt humans, and that a rattlesnake will only strike as a defensive last resort, a single careless footstep or innocent stumble can have life-altering consequences when rattlesnake and human territories overlap. As Charles Bowden observed, “… love of nature often leaves skid marks on the ground when it comes to snakes”.

I meet the snake again two days later. She is lying in full view, her body at rest in two relaxed folds, basking on the sunny concrete just inches outside my patio door. In this encounter there is no suspense, no holding my breath as I attempt to calculate her size, her species, her mission. There is just a large adult rattlesnake on one side of glass, and a small adult human on the other. The snake is out of her element, the human well within hers. Both are perfectly still.

We are strangers in the most complete sense. There is no bond of species or affection uniting us. And yet for a moment, to my own utter astonishment, I am caught up in a wave of tenderness toward this animal.

A complicated truth settles itself at my feet.

I might feel safer in a world that has rid itself of venomous snakes, a world in which the boundaries between wild and occupied are mercilessly enforced. Perhaps this brief encounter renders me incrementally more sympathetic to the impulse for homeland security. I am sharing this parcel of land with people I love. To spare the snake, requires me to embrace calamitous possibilities that I find intolerable, brings the unimaginable closer. Life in the desert is ruled by wit and violence. A rattlesnake on a residential property simply forces our hand.

Yet this magnificent creature, this Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, lives masterfully in a body that others revile. I cannot imagine a more compelling reason to accord her my full and unqualified respect.

We have our own reasons, each of us, for how we feel about snakes. It’s just that those reasons are mostly rote. I have had the privilege of meeting a rattlesnake on shared home turf. There can be no doubt that the terms of that sharing are volatile, and that the future of such an arrangement is at best, uncertain. But having met the rattlesnake in a manner in which we were equally free and vulnerable, neither holding dominion over the other, I am changed.

I have not seen the rattlesnake again since she slipped out of view, just moments before the arrival of a crew of affable firefighters ready to manage her relocation. But she remains present in my consciousness. And her place in the universe of my reverence for life remains intact.

Slowly, in the Arizona desert, I am learning to separate fear from loathing.

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