Rattlesnake Nostalgia

As I was drawing my rattlesnake yesterday, I naturally thought about all the rattlesnakes I’ve encountered in my life, real ones, not metaphorical ones. Nobody really “likes” them. They’re scary and deadly. I lost three dogs to snake bites and while it was more or less the dogs’ fault (one was attracted to the sound and ran into a nest, the other two stuck their heads into gopher holes in my yard where the snakes were living) I’d still rather not have lost my dogs. All the dogs I got after that had rattlesnake avoidance training which was very very effective.

During a long interval of my hiking life, I saw a rattlesnake almost every day from February to Thanksgiving. I’ve seen some beautiful rattlesnakes — the red diamondback in particular. They are not only pretty, but comparatively mellow.

Snakes are territorial in that they live somewhere and hunt nearby, so, going on certain trails routinely, I wandered around in their territory. They don’t pursue their “prey;” they wait. There might be a “chase,” but seriously, though they move pretty fast even without legs (they have tractor treads on their bellies) they’re not pumas. No one is in trouble unless they unwittingly GO to the snake. And, rattlesnakes aren’t stupid. They prefer to save their venom for food.

The one I’m drawing is not one of the California coastal rattlesnakes; it’s a Western Diamondback which I’ve never seen alive. I’ve seen plenty of them dead on roads and, honestly, that’s all right with me. I don’t believe in killing a snake unless it presents a danger to people. They do a lot of good out there in the Big Empty. Since I’m no longer the fleet-footed creature I once was, I’m not heading into the bush, but staying where I can see what’s ahead of me. Generally, they don’t live above 9000 feet and I’m only at 7500 feet, so…

It isn’t an easy drawing, and I don’t know where I’ll stop — I am not sure I want to convey the reality of every scale on his body — but I’m intrigued by what I’ve drawn so far. First I drew the rattle. Often with a rattlesnake that’s all anyone “knows” of its presence. The sound is bone-chilling, and it’s meant to be. The snake really does NOT want to meet you. The rattle warns a person to stay away from the sharp end, the head. The rattle means, “Don’t hurt me.”

My mom’s childhood on the high plains of Montana had rattlesnakes, and she was terrified of all snakes, but she also taught me a good method for living with them. All my years hiking “with” them, I hiked with a long wooden hiking stick and pounded the ground to let the snakes know I was there. I came to see that as my “rattle.” It worked very well and I only had one close call which was when I had to quickly step off the trail to avoid mountain bikers. Just as I did that, a snake coiled and rattled, prepared to strike my dog’s face. I put my stick between the snake’s head and my dog and moved the stick. The snake straightened out and went away. It felt like hours had gone by, but when I looked up, the bikers hadn’t come much closer.

One evening, along the side of the road a I was walking out, I watched a mother ground squirrel defend her four babies from a large Mojave diamond back. The snake rattled and hissed and the mother stood up on her hind legs making herself as big as she could, and scolded that snake. When he moved to strike, she moved to the side. She was absolutely ferocious. Finally, the snake seemed to shrug (impossible, no shoulders, but whatever) and took off.

I could share rattlesnake reminiscences all day, but I’d better go work on that drawing.


6 thoughts on “Rattlesnake Nostalgia

  1. Some of the squirrels around here have evolved a resistance to rattlesnake venom.

    Lots of rattlers where I live. I usually settle down at a safe distance and watch them until they get bored with me and go away. My dogs are snake avoidance trained as well. Some people think it is “cruel” to put a shock collar on a dog and shock them when they try to get too close to a real snake. I think it is a lot more cruel to die slowly from the venom.

    I’ve seen my dogs react to a real rattlesnake. It works. Not only do they back away growling, my Avery actually points the snake out to me. It is a spine chilling growl I’ve never heard from them before.

    • Cruel is a snakebite in the eye. Sad, sad, sad day when I had to put Ariel to sleep because the venom was already in her brain. My brain tried and tried to turn it into a bee sting, but no luck. And Lupo? If he’d been younger (he was 14) I might have tried the antivenin, but he got bit in the face, too. There’s nothing cruel about rattlesnake avoidance training and it can save a person’s life. Sometimes I don’t think people get it.

  2. Beautiful drawing – detail in the face gives it a fascinating expression. I’ve never been near a rattlesnake and that’s fine with me. How very sad you lost 3 dogs to bites. What awful memories. 😟

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