I walked along, enjoying the bird sounds, the wildflowers, the deer and elk trotting along the hillsides.
A perfect day to be in Hells Canyon, a remote and spectacular place in central Idaho. One of those days that cause you to wax rhapsodic about the splendor of it all.
And then: Rattle-rattle-rattle.
I looked down to see my foot rapidly descending upon a triangular serpent head: a Western rattlensake.
I jumped back, and, I admit, screamed. The snake, for its part, slithered away, rattling as it went. It gave me a warning, and I heeded it.
But I assure you this: The rest of the hike was not spent in a peaceful contemplation of the natural world’s glories. No. I became acutely focused on the possibility of stepping on poisonous snakes.
This feeling was heightened by the fact that I was alone, two hours from camp, in extremely remote and lonely country. Every rock, every bush, became a potential hiding place for another rattlesnake. A non-poisonous and non-threatening garter snake that darted between my legs later may have been even more terrifying than the rattler, so hyper-alert was I to snakes.
My fear is not just something passed on by superstitious parents. The fear of snakes (and spiders and other creepy critters) may very well be part of our genetic make-up, an evolved trait that helped our ancestors stay alive on the savanna.
I like rattlesnakes. I really do. They’re fascinating animals, efficient predators, misunderstood and often persecuted creatures.
Still, when confronted with them in the wild—even when I’m expecting it—I admit the need to calm an inner fear, a fear that emanates from deep inside.
I dare even the most ardent snake lover to not shudder just a little bit at the sight of two rattlers mating, an event I once witnessed at the Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve. The slithering, writhing mass of snake skin—accented by the occasional rattle—was simply the stuff of nightmares.
For early humans, the world was a place chock full of scary creatures: Things that could inflict nasty bites, like the poisonous snakes. Those unpleasant critters that go bump in the night, when we can’t see very well. And big, fanged beasts that could eat us.
In the 21st century, these fears appear to have outlived their usefulness. I’m more likely to die by a deer through a windshield than by a hungry bear. Stairs and swimming pools pose more realistic threats than rattlesnakes and cottonmouths.
The old fears remain. Consider the still-prevalent events called “rattlesnake round-ups,” where snakes are flushed out by “hunters” who squirt gasoline into their dens. People toss the snakes into pits, subject them to cruel “stunts” (such as people walking on them), and kill them for tacky taxidermic souvenirs. It’s hard to imagine we’d so casually tolerate a similar “round up” involving bunnies or dolphins.
Conservationists now know that, as much as these creatures scare us, it’s a much scarier world without them.
Bats don’t get caught in our hair, but do eat tons of mosquitoes and crop pests each year. Rattlesnakes feed on mice and other rodents. Recent studies have shown that large predators are as important to ecosystems functioning properly as flowing rivers or native vegetation.
These facts are well known. We are worse off without the snakes and bears and spiders.
I don’t want to dismiss the fear. In fact, I think scary creatures offer another benefit we don’t usually consider: humility.
Our world may not be filled with daily ecounters with dangerous creatures. But that prickly fear we feel in the presence of a large spider, or a poisonous snake, transports us to a time when nature was not something “out there,” but rather a series of real, complicated relationships with living creatures.
The rattle jolts us back to a reality where nature was not just an idyllic walk in the park. It reminds us that humans remain a species profoundly shaped, not by cities and technology, but by other animals and our relationships with them.
Lose the rattlesnake, and we lose a part of what makes us human.
Long may they slither through our reality, reminding us of the connections to nature that still remain deeply embedded in our genes, in our being.
(Image: Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) in Arizona. Photo credit: © Paul Berquist)