Learning About Snakes



I half expected to see elk and bear coming into our Payson yard as evacuees from the big forest fire, but had not counted on rattlesnakes. There it was moving about our little subdivision and creating a dither among some neighbors.

"Do you know what this is?" Holding up an object I asked the question of my grandchildren one summer during vacation. Immediately they knew the answer. Rattles from a rattlesnake! We counted them, 10 in a double row.

Along with the quiz came a shiver. Anything to do with snakes sends a shiver through most people. My mind raced back some many decades to when I learned about snakes in the Rim country.

It was summer and our children were children, playing in the forest behind our Rim Trail cabin. A large diamondback rattler came through the forest and right between the playmates. When they screamed, I ran to them, saw the problem, grabbed a shovel and swung wildly chopping off its head.

Some weeks after killing the diamondback, an even larger snake appeared in our yard. Now it was I who became rattled, and again I ran for the shovel. I swung a mighty blow at the creature, which was not coiled but stretched out to a great length, and decapitated it.

In the moments that followed I realized the animal had no rattles. Even though its markings were similar to a diamondback rattler, it was a gopher snake. I had killed a genuine friend who kept rodents clear of the area.

My unthinking action was to be regretted, for in the years that followed, gophers multiplied and overran our yard, eating the roots of bushes and fruit trees.

The following summer, while up the river picking black raspberries, I encountered a beautiful Arizona Black Rattlesnake. He was lying in wait for mice that might also be berry picking, and was just an arm's length from where I started to reach for a cluster of the fruit.

Gently withdrawing my hand I said, "Good morning, snake. You and I are both interested in these bushes, and I really do want you to have this side. So don't worry about me. I'll move on around to the other side, and if I meet any mice I'll send them your way."

The creature seemed to appreciate my loving and gentle tone, for it did not move. It sensed I was not a threat, and after I had picked my side of the bush I came back around to admire this black beauty. The rattles were large, the head very broad, and the keen forked tongue was darting in and out to sense the approach of anything warm.

It was marvelous to see.

That sense of harmony between us brought a feeling of awe and joy, as it always does when one has a close encounter with a creature of the wild. Somehow I hoped its passive acceptance of me was an act of forgiveness by the snake-world for my earlier murderous deeds.

Snakes have had a bad rap ever since our first parents pointed guilt away from themselves and insisted, "The snake made me do it."

As for myself, it was time to walk along the stream and through the forest to feel the forgiveness I had been offered. It was a good time to get back into harmony with even snakes.

While we are at it, another snake we often encounter in Rim country is the coral snake. He is in the family with cobras and mambas, and does have very potent neurotoxic venom. While not fatal, it can disrupt the nervous system (nausea, numbness, blurred vision, etc.) and is best left alone.

However, we are more likely to meet up with the mountain king snake, banded and looking much like a coral snake. The old jingle may be useful, "Red on black, venom lack; red on yellow, kill a fellow."

While an exaggeration, it helps to know that the harmless (except for bird nests and rodents) king snake differs from the coral. The front of the coral snake's head is entirely black, the colored bands have even borders and completely encircle the body, and the red bands are bordered by yellow or off white and do not touch the black bands. With the king snake, the red bands touch the black.

The rattles I held up for my grandchildren were from the creature I had beheaded behind our cabin many years before. They had reposed on a do-dad shelf, always good for some conversation. This time the rattles went home with the grandchildren. Well placed, I thought; a family story and an "heirloom" passed on.

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