A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
In Hereford reptiles, like rodents, are abundant. Most commonly we see the quick-moving whiptail lizard, which is the favorite food of the road runner, the gecko, most often on a wall, and the various snakes, such as the large but, to humans, innocuous constrictors, the bull and gopher snake; the garter snake, and, the most impressive of all, the un-innocuous rattlesnake. On our land the western diamondback, the largest, is more common than the mojave, while the mojave is the most aggressive. Rattlesnakes have the facility to make themselves close to invisible unless they move. People around here say that the the mojave and diamondback have sometimes combined. Also said is that because so many rattlesnakes have been eliminated when they rattle, some don’t ratttle any more.
Mature diamondback rattlesnakes, having attained snake-wisdom, don’t want to waste their venom on anything bigger than they can consume, so they would rather avoid you than bite you. Last year, while carefully making my way through some brush out on the land, I saw a huge diamondback, a magnificent creature, moving across the area where I was headed. Only by the unhurried movement did I know it had been in my path. I always go slowly and keep my eyes on the ground during snake season, and I wear on my jeans a jingly type bell to further inform of my whereabouts. Although rattlesnakes are a danger, they are useful; they help keep the natural balance by hunting and consuming rodents, and the snake I saw certainly was doing more than its part to keep that balance.
About two weeks ago, we had sighted the tail of a western diamondback as it was moving under the large, 20 year old oleander that protects the kitchen window from the sun. Three or four rattles. A rattler in such close proximity is a definite danger to us because of inadvertent contact. It quickly had disappeared from view.
We have two young dogs that at most times are found on our back porch, which is roofed but open to the elements. The dogs, Wyatt and Doc, named by their former owners but non-caretakers, are refugees from the desert. Our Aussie won’t admit them to his presence, and since he’s 13 years old and nearly deaf and blind, he has his perogatives. He is brilliant and can be diabolically clever. A great actor, and still agile, occasionally he runs out at them from the kitchen, growls, does a quick U-turn and is back inside before they can react. His teeth are almost entirely ground down from his former habit of chewing on rocks, so it’s all bluster. His consort is a slightly younger mutt with blue eyes, like a border collie. She is not frightened of him, and if she gets frustrated by some food situation, she beats him up. He just ducks and takes it until she’s through. Rose now spends a certain time with W&D, who, with adequate food and medical care, weigh more than I do, probably even more than 120 pounds. It is clear Rose admires W&D, both for their impressive size and also their resolute defense against anything they perceive as dangerous. As they lie on the porch, she adopts their position, not as one of the group; rather with some space between. She never drinks out of their water dish, but it is not because they have ever stopped her; it’s because she respects them.
W&D’s preoccupation is defence against the coyotes outside the fence. Clearly if they got hold of one, they would be merciless. They would battle two or three at a time, maybe more, should it be necessary. If we were to say to them, W&D spare that animal, it would make no difference, because the former wanderers are now transformed into guardians of everything inside the inside fence. With humans, they have always been incredibly gentle. A small child would be completely safe grabbing them by the jowls and pulling or putting its hand in their mouths and removing what they were eating. They have exhibited tolerance for all other dogs, including a much smaller, sex-crazed, intruder from outside the fence, who we let in while we awaited pick-up by his owner. His energy was extraordinary; there were several hours of their slow and dignified movement around the yard with him following avidly in their wake, his leaps exercises in futility but undaunted and unceasing. Finally he was picked up, and they could lie down on the porch again. Huge dogs like W&D need to lie down most of the time because their quickness of response to any dangerous situation takes an immense toll on their skeletal and muscular structures. In addition, they have very thick coats, and they need not to overheat.
We did not know anything about W&D’s reaction to snakes until yesterday, when an employee of our satellite receiver company came to install some new equipment. When he was up on the roof, we heard W&D barking continuously, which is unusual during the day. We assumed it was because of the installer on the roof. But when he came in, he reported that there was a rattlesnake coiled up under a tree. Gene and he went out together, he indicated the snake had been under the big tree near the back gate. The installer said that W&D had been barking at the snake and that the dogs had not approached too closely but had stayed a few feet away. Later I took a look under the tree, and Doc, who is the dominant part of W&D, carefully examined the area in question with great caution.
Today something unusual happened. We keep the front and back areas of our yard separate. I pick up dog poo and throw it out on the land each morning, before it’s too hot. I opened up the front area, and W&D came through. I put the bucket down near the side gate, and I went over to a tree near the front porch to remove the hose that was watering a juniper, in order to move it to another tree. Then I noticed Doc was examining the tree area with exactly the same motions as he had yesterday under the tree that was near the back gate. Leaning over to look under the juniper, I could see nothing of note. Doc continued his examinations. Finally I detected a movement. Gene was on the back porch, barefoot, and I yelled at him to get shoes and the gun. (The gun is loaded with snakeshot which is a special cartridge that fires beebees instead of a slug.) Gene told me later that as soon as I yelled, Wyatt came racing to get him. On further examination of what I could see, I became pretty sure the snake was long and thin, not a rattler, and on further reflection, I have strong doubts it was a rattlesnake. Anyway it disappeared.
I don’t like guns. But we have one, loaded with snakeshot. If the rattlesnake hangs around the back yard, I’m in favor of getting rid of it, and my husband has absolutely no compunctions. Any other type of snake would be a welcome replacement; myself, I especially appreciate the bull snake, which is a very laid back creature that hisses rather than rattles. The rattlesnake in the back may be able to outwit us, as well as W&D, but we are now its enemies, so it’s 1 against 4, and it had better be careful.
Copyright 2015 Ruth Clark
Ruth Clark lives in Hereford, Arizona with her husband Gene and their four dogs.
Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)