Book Review: America’s Snake
The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake
by Ted Levin
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Ophidiophobia being every bit as fundamental a human attribute as handedness or a yearning for genocide, there’s always something awkward, even disloyal, about liking the unhinged ravings of a snake-fancier. And yet such books can be winning in their wild-eyed passion; such was the case with Thomas Palmer’s 1992 Landscape with Reptile, a beautifully-written paean of praise to the rattlesnakes of the Blue Hills Reservation outside of Boston, and such is the case with Ted Levin’s America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, in which rattlers slither into the spotlight once again.
The pitviper classified as Crotalus horridus lives in forests, rock slopes, and wood lots. It grows to four feet long and as thick around as your arm. Its coloration allows it to blend into perfect invisibility on dead foliage or forest floor (it’s unbelievably easy to stand next to one without knowing it, and every bit as easy to step on one without meaning to). It’s very nearly blind, navigating its ground-world by scent and heat-sensors. The sound of its tail-rattle freezes the blood. And its venom, which it produces by the bucketload, will not only stun some poor schmuck rodent but immediately begin decomposing the creature – essentially pre-digesting it so it’ll be a slurry of protein-sauce when the snake gets around to eating it. The venom can kill humans, after first subjecting them to excruciating pain.
Every time besotted Levin mentions these vicious, satanic creatures, he gets just a little bit more pitiable: “not inherently aggressive,” (balderdash! You don’t evolve a head full of weapons of mass destruction by being a Trappist monk) “breathtakingly beautiful,” (bewildering! What on Earth is “beautiful” about a turd-brown yard-long muscle intent on killing you and your beagles?) and even “as American as apple pie” (barmy! The only way it could be true would be if apple pie leapt across the kitchen table and bit you in an excess of unholy rage), but we keep reading because Levin’s lovely prose style makes it so easy to share his various hair-raising adventures:
Hearing an unexpected rattlesnake is a full-body experience, and the chills that metastasize down our spines give significance and density to “the fear of God.” One evening on the outskirts of Tuscon, in the late eighties, when my son Case was not yet three years old, I carried him upside down as I followed behind a squat, lumbering Gila monster that had just emerged from a pile of rust-colored rocks. The lizard was in no particular hurry. Consequently, neither were we. Where it went, we went. Over rocks, around cacti, across an arroyo. Suddenly, after the sky had darkened lumen by lumen from rose to violet, a chunk of reddish sandstone came alive beneath the lizard’s feet. The delirious rattlesnake went crazy, buzzing. Never flinching, the Gila monster plodded on. I straightened as though I had touched an electric fence, and by the time I regained my composure, the lizard had vanished, and Casey, whose face had been a mere two feet or so above the ground, was totally jazzed as though I had planned the diversion.
“Our attitude toward rattlesnakes is more venomous than the snakes themselves,” he writes, the poor thing, and the rest of his book is full of both the natural history of the seventeen species of timber rattlers in the United States and warm, involving stories of the men and women who study these creatures and share Levin’s high opinion of their character. The personal profiles of his fellow snake-fanciers are all first-rate, as are his scattered elaborations on different aspects of the rattlesnake’s world:
That snakes have forked tongues (no secret here) does nor mean they’re duplicitous. Just the opposite. A male timber rattlesnake seeks with his tongue, which, like our ears, translates two threads of information, one from each tine. He then analyzes the chemosensory data in an organ on the roof the mouth and orients himself based on the translation. Which is to say, a snake reads the world with its tongue and then triangulates based on the relative differences in the chemical signals picked up by each tine. Snakes can’t get lost … ever.
Timber rattlers are in decline across much of their traditional range, increasingly endangered by a number of factors, most of them connected to a steadily-growing human population in its old habitats. This is a cause of alarm for Levin, who wants his breathtakingly beautiful species to flourish. And such is the passion and punch of his book that it might very well convince you that rattlesnakes really are gentle and sublime and worthy of preservation. Somewhere a good distance from where you live.