Rattlesnake Gutter

Why is there a controversy about reintroducing an endangered species to Massachusetts?

It’s a bright, warm day in mid-autumn, and my nephews Luke and Sully, who are eleven and five, and their mother my sister Tammy, and our mother their grandmother, have driven to a stretch of dust-and-gravel road in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois to spy as many snakes as we can. Every year, during the fall and spring, the Forest Service shuts down what is known as Snake Road so that the region’s endemic reptiles can cross safely between the sandstone bluffs where they shelter during the winter, and the wetlands where they live during the summer. Snake Road is a beloved visit for herpetologists, naturalists, and hikers.

Me and Sully on the Snake Road, Shawnee National Forest. Photo by Tammy M. Pullum

We park by the gate and saunter along, our tribe of boys and women, through golden-green dapples of sunlight. Our system of spotting is less often by the snakes themselves, and more by sighting clumps of people at a distance: if a bunch of people are standing still in one spot, you can wager there is a snake nearby drawing their attention. When Sully sees a group approaching, he clings to my leg shyly and whispers, “Ask them if they have seen any snakes.” “Hi, excuse me, have you seen any — “ “HAVE YOU SEEN ANY SNAKES???”, he bursts out, beaming and flirting, unable to contain himself.

In their awe-inspiring mystery, the snakes are a joy. Luke, initially skeptical in the typical fashion of an eleven-year-old, starts roving around the base of the bluffs looking for paths, so we call him Pathfinder. In the coves of some of the bluffs, we discover copperheads denning: they are a soft tawny shade with delicate, penny-colored markings shaped like leaves. On the warm road, we encounter dark, glossy cottonmouths as thick as your arm. One opens her mouth and shows its whiteness to us. We leave a halo of space around them and the path clear in the direction they are going.

The Shawnee National Forest, where I grew up, literally stretches from river to river across the bottom of the state of Illinois. In the delta between the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers, this deep, vast old-growth forest crests over high-rise sandstone rock formations. When I relocated to Western Massachusetts, where I currently reside, I felt naturally at home in the thick woods that grow on ancient volcanic basalt rises. The civilizations of both regions maintain a good-natured truce with the surrounding woodlands, in the certain knowledge that if humanity ever falls, the trees will engulf everything that is left in an instant.

So in these places filled with nature, I assumed a lot of things about nature would be the same, but they aren’t: and one of them that isn’t is people’s attitudes toward snakes.

My family didn’t encounter a timber rattlesnake that afternoon on Snake Road, but we easily could have. If we had, we would have been chill about it, with a frisson of excitement because a rattlesnake, perhaps on account of their musical jewelry, exudes a dangerous mystique that would have made them the star of the trail — but we certainly would not have panicked, thought of relocating, jammed a town hall about it, or committed an act of violence.

When I moved to Massachusetts, I was surprised to learn that there were or had been timber rattlers here, because rattlesnakes don’t call to mind cold Northerly weather. But of course there had been: the species is the snake on the Don’t Tread On Me flag, an actual emblem of “This is the land where we live now, England!”, not something from myth or heraldry.

Over the centuries since that flag was sewn, the European colonists drove the timber rattler to near extinction. Recently, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (Mass Wildlife, for short) reached the decision to help the population of snakes recover, which involves finding a safe space for them to reproduce in peace away from people. Yet in a “thickly settled” state like Massachusetts, no location is truly remote from humans — so Mass Wildlife sought the most isolated place they could find: Mt Zion Island in the Quabbin Reservoir, surrounded by water, and the Quabbin itself by dense forests and natural preservation land.

Because the Quabbin is the drinking water supply for the Boston area, it has to be kept pristine, so there is no human swimming allowed. It surprised me to learn there is any boating at all there, but there is, and people do fish in the Quabbin, which is causing part of the problem — and once people learned that rattlesnakes could swim, there was even more of a problem. The trepidation of the human residents turned to full-bore outraged panic.

People in Western Massachusetts, it turns out, are very different about snakes than people in Southern Illinois.

As a naturalist, I started following this case closely. For here is a chance to stand up on a regional and local level for an endangered species in real life, rather than the far-away powerless feeling of filling in online petitions trying to save polar bears from climate change, or elephants from poachers and the ivory trade. So when I saw a public meeting come up, I decided to put my body where my beliefs are, to speak up on behalf of the snakes and make my voice heard.

Driving to the town hall where the meeting will be held, I am nervous and excited: after several years as a transplant, this is my first New England town meeting, the core of grassroots democracy here. On the elevator to the meeting room is an older lady and a middle-aged couple. I was in a jolly, upbeat mood — as a Midwesterner, I naively assume that New Englanders are as they pride themselves to be, per the reputation that they put forth to the rest of humanity: progressive, at least liberal, into nature, open-minded. Boy, am I wrong.

The older lady, who lives in the vicinity of the Quabbin, starts holding forth to the couple about how the snakes are going to interfere with her life: “I walk,” she proclaims indignantly. “I walk my dog. And my grandchildren come out to visit.”

My ears go red with fury. This is what people do who lack an actual argument, in America, at least, where others fall for it: invoke their family, hold up the image of a child like a human shield and hide their fear behind it. Whether the child is even there, or loves snakes or fears them, whether that child now or in later life would be horrified to know they had been used in such a cowardly fashion. It’s an automatic way of shutting down opposition in our culture because to go against it with any other case you must hate children and babies and families and puppydogs and be, therefore, a monster. Like a snake.

I think of Luke and Sully and their mindful and respectful happiness. I think, Your dog is not even supposed to be there in the first place and nature is more than scenery for your damn doggy bathroom trips. And fuck you if you are too lazy to teach your grandchildren any skills, who come out every once in a while, but their random few haphazard hours are worth more than the lifetime of a snake or a species to you.

Since I still thought we would get a chance to speak, I kept even the… um… redacted version of my thoughts to myself, because if I did speak in front of the room, I wanted this woman to at least hear me.

But then it is announced that we are only to observe the panel, not to offer our views. Both frustrated and relieved, I sit in the front row where I can focus on the panel in front of me, rather than the backs of a bunch of people whom I would struggle against hating.

A tall white man in his late forties enters from the side door. He has a broad pale face and pale eyes. He checks me in his gaze and takes the seat next to mine. He leans in toward me with the confidential tone that white people used to have when they would say something breathtakingly racist to you, assuming you were going to agree with them because you were white.

“So what side are you on in this circus?” He is taking up a lot of space with his energy. I stubbornly hold the area around me while maintaining my body at a slight inclination away from his. I keep my eyes directed at the panel table in front of me.

“I’m pro-snake,” I answer.

He makes a look of surprise and acts offended. “Do you hear that? She’s pro-snake!” he says, swiveling his big body to address the people behind us as his audience. “Well then,” he lowers his voice and sneers, “they can bring them to your house.” He has a high voice for a man of such large proportion.

“That’s fine with me; I grew up around snakes; I am not frightened of them,” I reply. That is all I am giving him. I’ve already divined that this man is desperately looking for validation and attention, so I decide to starve him of it.

He begins monologuing to everyone nearby: “If they are going to put snakes on Mt Tom…” I feel him leaning closer to me as though the next line is meant not just for the snakes, but for me, “… they are going to find all those snakes with their heads cut off.”

I am shocked. Of course, I think, This is what people like you did to Dian Fossey and to Digit. I raise a rippling wall of energy between me and him.

Mt Tom is news to me: I thought this meeting was only going to be about maintaining a recovery population of snakes on a secluded island in the Quabbin. I shudder inwardly, for a different reason than the other people here are shuddering. Because I hope the naturalists put the snakes on any other mountains in our area except Mt Tom, which is an angry, wounded mountain: a head wound on its summit from a long-abandoned mining operation, a forsaken ski resort falling to ruins and spray-painted with misogynistic rape graffiti. Mt Tom is the only mountain around here that people trash. The mountains of the Holyoke Range, by contrast, are quiet and pure. I would say “my side of the river” but even Wequamps (colonial name Sugarloaf), north of Tom, is pristine. You can extrapolate anything you want from that about the communities that frequent Mt Tom, but it is the only mountain around here where I find litter: beer cans, condom wrappers, plastic juice bottles, and cigarette butts. I sincerely hope the state does not try to put snakes on Mt Tom because they are in peril of mischief if they do.

After some ceremonial administrative business, the state herpetologist, Michael T. Jones, begins his presentation before the mostly hostile audience. They resent the fact that they do not get to speak and Jones is not giving them the answers they want: such as to know what the bare minimum number of snakes is that they have to allow in their state in order for a quota to be satisfied (and I guess give people carte blanche to kill any snakes over and above the quota marker). Jones dimly and tone-deafly shades around a direct answer. He could at least have told them that nature doesn’t work like that, with minimum numbers: there are too many variables. Or pitched the numbers high. The panel members, representing their communities, murmur with dissatisfaction.

Jones projects a collage of headlines gathered from regional newspapers from a time band of about 150 years, a tide of stories that sputters out about 50 years ago once the rattlesnake population had been extirpated. Front-page stories splash with columns about hikers and hunters encountering the snakes — usually killing them for their trouble. Jones is using the prevalence of headers to show the intrigue and fascination New Englanders have had with this snake over the years and how the snakes used to be a facet of the landscape.

But the overall impression, the takeaway, is that we are an exponentially greater threat to snakes — not only on a habitat level but on an individual-encounter level, than they are to us. Why is nobody seeing this? Time and time again when a human encounters a snake, the snake gets killed. Not the opposite. The headlines are never about a human getting bit and dying. They are always about a snake getting chopped or shot.

Jones reveals a timber rattlesnake range map on the screen: a great swath of rusty-brown-red across the continental U.S., like a field of paint on the side of a barn, with a few small flecks sprayed up into Massachusetts. It is all the range of the same snake, Crotalus horridus, with the same amount of venom and the exact same habits. One wonders how the people of all these other states survive such a plague among them!

Perhaps the same way the indigenous peoples of Massachusetts did, who were showing no sign of dying out by cause of snake when the colonizers came along.

I am feeling like I have slipped dimensions into the realms of the truly irrational when the proceeding takes an even darker turn. Al Richmond, a herpetologist on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts, where I work, speaks out from the panel with an anecdote about how haphazardly rangers enforce protections for snakes. He tells a story about a man who stole a copperhead from Mt Toby and carried the snake down the mountain in his backpack. When rangers questioned him about what was in his pack, the man opened it and the snake bit him. Dumped out on the ground, the rangers then cut the snake, who had been stolen from her denning site, who was scared for her life, up with a shovel. A beautiful copperhead, the same kind Luke and I saw, nephew and aunt together in a world made of sandstone, sunlight dapples, and leaves.

The psychopath next to me listened to that story alertly, rapt in a fantasy about cutting up a snake’s body, soft as clay, and said “Good.”

I moved my seat at that point.

Perhaps it is some Puritan vestige, a latency of historic fear of the Devil hiding in the unknown great, dark woods, that makes New Englanders unable to deal with the concept of snakes. I am only partially joking. Because my friends who live out West, where rattlesnakes are a part of life, are simply mystified by this behavior. So am I, coming from a land of swamps, bluffs, and forests — Southern Illinoisans don’t have this fear. Yeah, sometimes people will kill a snake if it gets in their yard, but they do not live in abject terror of them, offended by their very existence. It’s a basic wilderness skill: you know about snakes, know to look in the leaves. After that, you don’t think about them.

The people at the meeting, all of whom would identify themselves as intelligent, civically active, socially-responsible people, are murmuring, Yes, we agree that a species should be saved — but “not in my backyard.” I overhear many times this literal stereotypical phrase. But that is how fighting extinction works. It has to be in someone’s backyard, because humans’ backyards are everywhere. It is easy to think and prescribe abstractly of tigers in China: one can lecture the Chinese in one’s mind about their bogus medicines and prescribe how they might live differently by giving something up that they have decided is important. But when the hard work comes of learning to share something that we took over in the first place, are we willing and capable of doing that ourselves?

The way we treat native wildlife in our country is eerily similar in language and rhythm to the way we have treated indigenous people, the ineluctable drumbeat of Manifest Destiny that is woefully familiar to anyone who has read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It lives on in this mindset of entitlement. The postage stamp of land that we arrivistes begrudgingly allow to those who first lived on it gets smaller and smaller. A reservation. A reserve. But now we would like to have the resources of that part, so we will take it, too, and damn your treaty. The remnant shrinks, disconnected from any meaningful interchange or adjacency with other territories that would promote genetic diversity and longevity, and culturally “problematic” species edited out of ecosystems that evolved around them as a connector. The language white settlers used to describe native people is breathtakingly similar to the language and reasoning used here against native wildlife. “Not in my backyard.” Don’t think so? Don’t like it? New England, here’s a mirror.

Driving home from the meeting, I am livid with incomprehension and fury: Massachusetts, you don’t deserve snakes. LET the snakes go extinct here, and it will be on you. They can thrive in other places, amongst grownups, amongst people who haven’t stopped their evolution with the deluded conceit that they are smarter than everyone everywhere else. But deep down under my acrimony I want Massachusetts to deserve snakes, if not for the Massholes at the meeting, for the snakes, and for the children who are future human caretakers of this land and who are being given no say in the matter but who are liberally being employed as rhetorical props. I want what is right here and right for us all, including the individual bodies of the individual rattlers whom I want to keep safe from harm. And as I could not speak at the meeting, here is what I want to say.

NOTE: The plan to place snakes on the island has since been scrapped, with the Commonwealth “investigating other measures”. But that is simply a means of avoiding an entrenched problem, which is with humans, not with snakes.

At some point, these snakes might leave the Earth, which could also be up to them, the time of their species could be up. Whether or not it means anything to them, our trying to do this is a sign of our maturity. It means everything to us, as we move forward as a species, a choice of what we want to be. That we learn our place in Nature, and that we learn, like we try to teach our young, like we lecture the rest of the peoples of the Earth, to share. Sharing is about more than blocks in the playroom. This coexistence, this acknowledgement of the sovereignty of other creatures, is at its root what sharing truly means and is our chance to grow up.

If you love your children, do not protect them this way. Let them have these snakes. This is life, this beautiful edge that is shared with something other than you, that is slightly dangerous, is nature. This is being alive: the thrilled laughter of my nephews and the women surrounding them; these ecosystems, intricate in ways we can only barely begin to encompass and our lawns and malls fall so far short of doing. If you say you love nature, spare a gaze of awareness away from the relentless drive straight ahead of you at human head height, and look for a moment down towards the Earth you walk upon, at a pile of leaves, at a sunlit dust trail. For this is what life is about: this nature, this happiness, this awe, this complex and challenging love.