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August 4th, 2009

RATTLESNAKE ENCOUNTER

It is that time of day when the last bright pinpoint of the setting sun suddenly pops below the mountain’s wide black edge. l track its movement, following this pattern over months, noting which ridge or dip marks this days’ exit.

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Heavy clouds, dark with rain sandwich the last light, seemingly squeezing the remnant color onto high reaches above the darkening valleys. The mountains behind me pick up tantalizing shades of terracotta, clay-ridged against the deepening dusk. All is aglow in this golden time, colors richly saturated and evening primroses punctuate the settling dusk with floating sulphur flowers. The air cools a few degrees as its direction begins to shift from daytime upflow to downflow, starting its nightly slow-slide down the slope of the mountain to the valley where I live. There is a promise not of rain but of cooling air that will invite deep, satisfying sleep. The lack of seasonal rains disappoints the thirst of the land though the cool air is welcome.


I stir myself to attend the responsibilities of plants and poultry: watering a young orchard that is developing in containers, waiting for its new home, a patch of greens going to seed and a harvest for the dinner table.


In duckland it is bedtime. As the light dims, the ducks know it is time to go in, so it is a simple exercise, a pleasing end-of-the day ritual: dump out their soiled water, alternating which plantings rooted under the duck house most need it, careful not to waterlog any one area. Pour enough grain into their bowl to last through early morning feeding.  Then to lock them into their predator-free zone for the night.

My job almost done and suddenly a sound arrests my movement; it is distinct and familiar, not unlike the rustle of dried seed stalks. It takes a few moments for its source to register in my brain and as soon as it does I become hyper aware. In the dimming light I want to hear it again, to pinpoint exactly where it is coming from because it is the alarm note of a rattlesnake, the venomous vipers (Family Viperidae) of this Western landscape. Ducks and rattlers are not the best of companions and besides that they, like us, eat eggs. An easily unnerved duck can inadvertently alarm a rattler and the duck is likely to loose in a confrontation.


I aim the hose toward the direction of the now silent sound and hear it again as the water finds its mark. Hidden under wood & rocks, a perfect ambush cover whilst waiting for a mouse meal to show up. It is the cycle: grain for ducks invites the mice and mice invite their predators.

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Diamond Back Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) with its Distinct Black & White Banded Tail Crosses a Road

I value these creatures as part of the ecology of this place, though I too have boundaries. I imagine that rattlers would be disturbed if I were to encroach on their home too.


Staying calm is essential.  I know that rattlesnakes are typically shy and would rather leave the scene than engage in something that does not translate into a meal. Moving it safely from the duck house and transporting it some miles distant is the wise thing to do if it is not to return. I will get skilled help, but first, the ducks get chased back into the garden, out of harms way.

After a phone call and sandals switched for high boots, returning to the duck house I wait, keeping an eye out in case the snake changes location, this is important.  In minutes Richard arrives with his hand forged snake tongs, designed to grip well without crushing the creature. We work as a team, me with a long handled manure fork prying away stones and wood to reveal the frightened reptile, now attempting to leave. Richard patiently waits for the moment to grab it behind its distinctive head with his tongs.

The weight of its body hangs writhing and it attempts to bite the steel that grips it. He talks to it calmly as I open the trash bin and step back. Carefully he lowers the panicked reptile into the bin and I clamp the lid on. The sound of its fear, the dry rasp of leaves, echoes off the metal walls and then it is quiet. calm again.


We share the last of the sunset with our passenger as we head South. At a place that seems right we pull over, lift the bin from the truck bed, remove the lid and lay it on its side, pointing the opening away from the road. The snake does not respond, so we lift the bottom and slide it out. Disoriented, it winds its way into the grass, its dark serpentine form is almost imperceptible in this light. It stays, motionless, no fear, no alarming whisper of rattle. We climb into the truck and head home, pleased with the outcome and excited by the adventure- the chance to get close to this secretive creature.


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