Hearing the Rattle


There was some disturbing news on our local radio station this morning. A couple herpetologists were on NPR explaining that some rattlesnakes in our area seem to be losing their ability to rattle.

The sound of a rattlesnake is guaranteed to stop a human being in his or her tracks – it erases the illusion of luxury and modernity and sends us back to our biological beginnings. The sound is chilling but not loud, nothing like the screeching of truck tires, the rush of an oncoming train, the cough of a midnight lion, or the piercing chorus of wolves beyond the campfire’s glow. It is really more of buzz than a rattle – like a tiny exhaust fan with a bent blade. If it weren’t for our genetic memory it might go unnoticed in any modern kitchen decked out with labor saving devices producing heat and in need of cooling. But we have evolved to know what the sound of rattlesnake means. Our response is atavistic: we hear the buzz and register fear.

One of my favorite children’s books is SOFT CHILD: How Rattlesnake Got It’s Fangs. It is a Native American folktale that explains that, after the Sky God made all the animals, he brought them together and said that each creature could choose a method to protect itself. Some chose speed, flight, claws, teeth, or camouflage. At that time Rattlesnake was soundless and very vulnerable, so to keep other animals from stepping on him, he asked for a rattle to let them know that he was there. It was only after Rabbit and Skunk ignored the rattle and began harassing Rattlesnake that the Sky God gave him fangs. That was when the buzz became the warning that lives in the human soul.

Around our ranch we hear the sound of Rattlesnake several times every year. Over the years, a few dogs, mostly dumb puppies have been bitten. None have died of the bite, but we have spent too many nights comforting them and too many dollars at the veterinarian. People are rarely bitten and, when they are, it is usually because they are fooling around with the snake – like the puppies, or Rabbit and Skunk. In fact, the fangs that the Sky God gave Rattlesnake are seldom used for defense – the rattle works just fine as long as people heed the warning. Even if people are too frightened to give rattlesnakes their space and go searching for the source of the buzzing sound with a shovel, it still works out. But the balance is upset when too many people encroach on the habitat of the rattlesnake. It becomes a very small example of what happens when one species over populates and moves into the domain of another. Everyone is reacting in the way their genes are driving them. The rattlesnakes are trying to warn the humans away and the humans are trying to protect themselves by killing the snakes that could hurt them.

The trouble is that, when large numbers of humans misread the rattle of a snake and kill them, they become unwitting actors in the evolution that puts the humans in just the sort of danger that they think they are avoiding. As they kill the frightened rattlesnakes that try to warn them to stay clear, they select for rattlesnakes that give no warning before they resort to the fangs that the Sky God gave them. The irony is that humans make the snakes more dangerous.

I have to admit to the murder of more than a few rattlesnakes. We love our pleasant yard. It is an incongruous oasis in a desert of wildness – a tip of the hat to European gardens, an extension of a lifestyle that turns carbon into the engine of comfortable, stress-free, and safe human lives. If we come across non-venomous snakes, or rattlesnakes out in the pastures, we leave them alone. Our ranch policy has been to kill only rattlesnakes that rattle around the yard. But now, as I consider the unintended consequences of our policy, I think I will stop using the sharp edge of the shovel to chop the heads off the rattlers that are trying to warn me. I think I will scoop them up with that shovel, dump them in a five-gallon bucket, and take them out to a prairie dog town as a counter-warning, but also as a thank you for setting my mind in gear.

Rattlesnake has me wondering if his warning is simply a warning not to come too close or if it is a warning to respect all of nature. Could those buzzing snakes be a clarion call to forsake our brutish, cowardly reactions and employ the gift that the Sky God gave us for our own protection? Could that snake be telling me to use my brain? The truth is, if I do not wise up and stop killing the snakes that warn me of their presences, I am contributing to a kind of evolution that will put myself and my family in greater danger. It turns out that my desire for an untroubled existence – a European garden, a place safe from cold, heat, manual labor, and rattlesnakes – makes my existence more tenuous.

Maybe Rattlesnake is trying to tell us that the ancient dance between reptiles and humans is only a tiny emblem of a great, looming tragedy. Do the lights of appliances that shine in the corners of our kitchen really make my life better? They glow green and reptilian as they release long-buried carbon into the air. They are vipers in a garden, completely silent but sinister in the extreme.

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