177 relaxed diamondback (2).jpg
176 aggressive diamondback.jpg

Buzz ran in the small-college anthology Stories from the Other Side, Sixth Edition, 2011.

  The anthology was edited by Francis Edward Crowley, Ph.D.

 

          By spring of 1981 I’d been eight months on the mountain and had developed a good pace. The hike down from the oak woods and across the desert to the ranch where I parked my bicycle and the bike ride to University of Arizona campus was three-and-a-half hours, the round-trip seven. I composed assignments in my head on the walks down, showered at McHale Center in the football team’s locker room, typed up my assignments in the library, worked at the music library for student wages after classes, and got back to my camp in the oaks by midnight.

 

           I composed the following piece in my head on the way to school:

           I see a diamondback as I come down this morning. It is stretched out in the open: four and a half feet, and a long tail with broad base: typical male. I walk around to where I can get a good, full-length shot. Photography is a great medium for communication with rattlesnakes.

           He remains still as I circle to find the best angle for a shot. Only his tongue moves. Its forked ends spread and flick once, twice, picking up my scent from the air. He draws back into a defensive coil, rattles raised to the side, neck pulled into a tight “S” behind and above the head. His tongue flicks out again. He is cautious, but not alarmed. The rattles are quiet.

           I stretch out on my belly, looking up through the lens at the white of his chin. I inch toward him until most of the frame is filled with head and rattles. We remain motionless as I wait for another flick of his tongue to complete the pose. No tongue. I click off a shot of that static pose and wriggle back a bit to elicit a flick. Out comes the tongue and I get a shot with tongue and eye in focus. I rise to move away. He uncoils and slides slowly, straight as an arrow, into the shelter of a mesquite. He has not rattled, nor struck, though I’ve been within reach.

          I went on to describe my stop at the ranch for the bike, where:

          One of the ranch dogs becomes excited about something near where I’m doing repairs on my bicycle before heading in to school. A big diamondback is crossing a pile of lumber. It is much larger than the one I photographed this morning and more silver in overall coloration. By size alone, approaching the maximum for the species, it too is most likely a male. It is still unaware of being observed and moves with confidence into the open.

           John hears his dog barking.

“          Diamondback,” I say.

           “Rattler?” he yells.

           His wife Mollie and their daughter Kari call from the house for the dog to get inside. Instead, another dog runs out from between Mollie’s legs to add to the confusion. Mollie and Kari run out, too.

           The diamondback extends his tongue and flicks it through air filled with the scent of six frantic mammals. At the same time, infrared sensors located in pits in the rattler’s face pick up our heat. He draws into a defensive coil and loudly, furiously sounds his rattles at the hot-blooded creatures rushing about.

           “Kill it, John!” Mollie shrieks several times.

           I convince John to let me relocate the rattler (later studies indicate that relocated reptiles are unlikely to survive, but at the time, it seemed my best course). I take the head off a mop I find beside the house and approach the rattler.             John brings a grain sack out from the shed.

           The rattler is acting like its Hollywood counterpart, a vision of vicious serpent rearing and striking amid a ceaseless roar of rattles.

           Vicious is part of the diamondback’s scientific name, Crotalus atrox. Atrox means vicious. I have seen little viciousness in these animals. Diamondbacks watch coiled as I pass them on the desert distant from human passage, rarely raising a ruckus. Their behavior is different near heavily used trails, where a defensive pose is taken up immediately upon sensing me. At those times, only a fool would step too close.

           The dogs join in the clamor, along with an occasional shriek from sidelined humans, as I spread the grain sack open on the ground near the rattler. John watches silent, intent.

           “The trick,” I explain, “is to lift the snake on the end of the stick with its weight distributed so that it prefers to balance there than to fall off. I’ll maneuver it into the open mouth of the sack, catch a fold of the sack with the stick and pull the sack up around the snake.”

           This is not usually difficult, but the rattler is terrified, agitated into continual motion of its unmanageably large body, always with that loud blare of rattles ringing in my ears. By the time he is finally in the sack and the sack tied, I am exhausted.

           “You’ve got some kind of nerve,” says John.

           “I don’t want that thing set loose nowhere near here!” says Mollie.

           I‘ve never seen a rattlesnake so riled up as that one as it responded to the mood conveyed by dogs and people.

 

           I was late leaving the ranch so I packed my notebooks as a barrier between the grain sack of rattlesnake and me, hefted the pack onto my back, and bicycled as quickly as I could to school. The snake’s freedom would have to wait until my nighttime return.

           I’d leave the snake with herpetologist Cecil Schwalbe in the Environmental Biology building on my way to the library to type up the paper for Ed. But first I showered.

           When I returned from the showers, towel around my waist, half a dozen members of the football team back from a morning workout stood around my blaring, vibrating locker.

           One insisted, “I grew up in Louisiana swamps, and what I’m hearing in that locker is a rattlesnake.”

           The vibrations of footsteps and banging locker doors when they came in must have set it off. I pressed through sheepishly, opened my locker and brought out the buzzing grain sack.

           I heard: “It is a rattler!”

           When I agreed, several players took advantage of the opportunity to practice wind sprints. I opened the sack for those who remained to peer in.

           “Damn! It is a rattlesnake! And it’s huge!” one called to the others laughing in the next row of lockers.

           As I finished dressing in my empty row, I felt like I didn’t fit in.

           I headed over to a quiet back room in the Environmental Biology building, where Cecil was pleased to see the, by then, calm and peaceful rattler.

           “It’s a beauty,” he said.

           I’d begun to miss that kind of quiet take on what seemed —no more, no less— another essential part of the nature around us. I looked forward to what Ed Abbey might say about the piece I’d written.