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Rattlers

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For all the hiking I’ve done, I’ve ever only seen a rattlesnake once and that was when I was driving across Wyoming and one was doing its crazy sidewinder slither across the road. I did however once nearly step on a copperhead while visiting Shiloh (like if I had taken one more step, I would have come down right on it!), nearly making me the last Civil War casualty. The truth is though while most of us reasonably don’t want rattlesnakes in the backyard, they are a critical part of the ecosystem and need to be understood, not demonized.

I’ve mostly made peace with the fact that the peaceable kingdom is anything but. All day long and all night long, too, every creature on that bluff, like every creature deep in the cove itself and every creature in my suburban yard in Nashville and every creature scurrying down every city alleyway, is both trying to eat and trying not to be eaten. An insect-eating scarlet tanager is not inherently less violent than the owl that eats songbirds. A rabbit is not somehow “better” for eating wildflowers than a fox is for eating rabbits. This is how the natural world works, and there is no wishing it were otherwise. But knowing about such suffering is not the same as being a witness to such suffering, and I did not go back to sleep that early morning.

My ambivalence in this matter of mortality explains why I was both completely fascinated and completely terrified by the small rattlesnake my husband found curled up next to the front porch of the cabin later that day. I was afraid, but I wasn’t only afraid. I was also a little bit in love with the magnificent creature that was calmly surveying us from behind a laurel, making not a sound.

To a rattlesnake, in other words, we are the trouble. We are the predators.

Timber rattlesnakes are declining in many states, including here in Tennessee, and it’s illegal to kill one. It’s actually illegal to kill any snake in Tennessee unless it poses a direct threat to you. Thing is, there’s never any reason to consider a snake a direct threat. Unless you’re the one posing a direct threat to the snake — if, say, you’re trying to kill it — a snake will simply sit quietly and wait for you to go away.

Barely two days after this peaceful rattlesnake entered my ken and installed itself in my dreams, the Orianne Society, a conservation nonprofit based in Tiger, Ga., started a new initiative to celebrate rattlesnakes. Every day for the month leading up to World Snake Day on July 16, Orianne is posting clips on social media of chief executive Chris Jenkins talking about snake biology, safe hiking in rattlesnake country, what to do when you encounter a snake, etc. — basically anything that might encourage people to stop killing snakes.

There are few pure predators in nature that just kill for the hell of it. Humans are one of them, along with our friends the house cat. The rattler only kills to eat and it would rather avoid us at all costs. I mean, they even give us a warning which is a hell of a lot more than we give them. An ecosystem is all the worse for not having them in it.

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