…on ‘America’s Snake’

Growing up, one of my favorite hikes was a 5 mile stretch of the blue trail between Farmington and Plainville, Connecticut locally know as Rattlesnake Mountain. I was always on high alert that these timber rattlesnakes could by anywhere and I really felt a threat that they could pop out, fangs out, at any moment. The impression that I got from Boy Scout manuals was that they lay near any log and would strike out of nowhere with one misstep. I was relieved and grateful when I found out that there haven’t been rattlesnakes on Rattlesnake Mountain for a very long time.

Reading Ted Levin’s “America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake,” I found out that I was not alone in my fear and relief and that I was horrifically short-sighted in that fear and relief.

For as far back as my memory allows, I have been terrified of snakes. It doesn’t matter the size, type, or variation — just looking at a picture would instill terror in me. As I get older, I’ve tried understanding them more and have become very interested in them but there’s something deep inside of me that is uneasy. A recent trip to the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House was fascinating and caught a lot of the large snakes in a very active mood but I was consistently woozy and almost nauseous inside the building. The hair on the back of my neck stands up and I’m tingly even though I’m fascinated and interested in the snakes. It’s the only animal I feel that way towards, and I can’t explain it.

“America’s Snake” is revelatory in describing how amazing Crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake, is as decades of research is starting to show. The giant threat that I imagined lurking in the Connecticut woods of my youth is an amazing, ancient, non-aggressive, and vital part of the woodland ecosystem. A handful of very dedicated biologists have been tracking and studying timber rattlesnakes for a long time and their data reveals an unforgettable animal; one guided by ancient pheromone trails we can’t see or understand, living on the sun and constantly adjusting a steady body temperature, and going to very familiar extremes to breed by any means necessary. As necessary and important his reporting and writing about timber rattlesnakes is, it’s only half of what makes this book so special and so highly recommended.

Towards the end of the book, Levin mentions the W.B. Yeats line “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” and applies the question to timber rattlesnakes and ecology — “How can we know the timber rattlesnake from the world?” What is unexpected, and fascinating, about “America’s Snake” is how Levin explains how this one species of rattlesnake can illuminate so many seemingly unrelated topics. Levin’s gift is using the timber rattlesnake as a lens to explain the politics of state government and their respective departments of environmental protection, the differences in attitudes and ego between amateur naturalists and educated biologists, the abilities and motives of zoos, the history of our country, the impact humans have just building roads, evolutionary theory and research, geology, psychology, specific effects of climate change, and how genetics works.

Timber rattlesnakes, casual movers, are not great at crossing roads without getting run over. Horny male rattlesnakes are driven to explore, which leads to genetic diversity because they stumble upon other dens of gravid females. The simple building of roads — even horse carriage roads — cuts their world off and we’re starting to see examples of genetic bottlenecking decimating ancient populations of timber rattlesnakes. Inbreeding is leading to diseases and listless, dying populations. This is the case of the population of rattlesnakes in the Blue Hills outside of Boston and in the case of the few remaining dens in Connecticut — where Route 2 bisects a cluster of dens and prevents the populations from inter-breeding.

A lot of “America’s Snake” takes place in my beloved New England, so my interest may be biased by that, but New England is the perfect example of how attitudes and deliberate behavior can affect ecology. A lot of the reasons why timber rattlesnakes are endangered in New England is because we’ve actively hunted and destroyed them since pilgrims first landed here. We’ve been very successful rattlesnake hunters because we fear them. Levin shows psychological studies in the South that shows drivers will go out of their way to run over snakes (fake snakes in the study) in the middle of a busy road. He presents compelling and controversial theories from evolutionary biologists that are theorizing that my fear of snakes is a primal, hard-wired fear that pre-dates homo sapiens and can be seen in monkeys.

My interest in this book began when I read about Massachusetts’ plan to create a timber rattlesnake sanctuary in the Quabbin Reservoir, which created significant public outcry. Why save the timber rattlesnake? Levin makes an impassioned defense of conservation and explains how interconnected our woodlands are. An entire chapter is devoted to Glastonbury, CT and how they are home to a thriving den protected by the town. They also have lower rates of Lyme Disease than neighboring, rattlesnake-less towns. Everything is connected — rattlesnakes eat mice which are the prime target of ticks in the woods.

Do not be discouraged by the length of this book — “America’s Snake” is full of gripping, interesting details for those interested in nature and biology and I highly recommend it.