“Snake” is a word that gives chills to many people like few others in the English language. “Rattlesnake” is a more specific label, and more chills go with it than most other snakes. There are several reasons for this, among them the ominous rattling sound they make with their tails in preparation to strike, and their countless appearances in movies where people in their presence freeze instinctively at the sound and sight of that rattle.
I get a bit of a chill as I start to write this story. I feel it between my shoulder blades and up the back of my neck. My rattlesnake confrontation was a half century ago, and thinking of it ever since has often stirred that chilled feeling up my spine.
The region surrounding our farm in Montgomery County,Tennessee, was populated by many kinds of snakes, and it still is. The most common venomous ones we had were copperheads that lived largely on dry ground and cottonmouths that slithered in the creeks and rivers. We saw a lot of both of these snakes. People where I grew up reasoned that copperheads were more dangerous than rattlesnakes because they bite without warning. At least a rattlesnake will take the time to coil up and rattle his tail before biting you, if you don’t catch it by surprise. If you do, they will dispense with the rattle and just bite you. That warning rattle gives potential victims a little time to rethink what they’re doing in the presence of a rattler.
Getting to the story, I was about fifteen years old and was mowing a hilly pasture with our tractor and mower with a seven-foot blade. I had been mowing other fields earlier in the morning and had made maybe five rounds on this particular field, with a lot more to go after lunch. When lunchtime arrived, I stopped the tractor, left the mower blade on the ground where it had been cutting, turned off the switch, and jumped off the tractor. I was looking forward to stretching my legs after several hours on the tractor.
Heading toward the dirt road leading down to my grandparents’ house, near some steep woods on the hillside, I walked maybe twenty feet from the tractor. About six feet directly in front of me, a rattlesnake’s tail came up high out of the grass and rattled in a small circular motion. I froze in my tracks instantly and felt the blood leave my face, while a chill went up the back of my neck. While mostly hidden in the grass, I could tell it was a large snake. I had nothing in my hands to kill it with, so I had no choice but to walk as fast as I could in a wide circle around it, watching where it lay in the grass as I passed.
As I headed down the hill, I began to think how I would approach the tractor after lunch. I caught up with Daddy where he was working on a fence, and we hopped in the pickup and headed home to lunch. I had a story to tell! Never before had I seen a rattlesnake in the wild—nor since, for that matter— even though I spent a lot of time in the woods where timber rattlers commonly live. On the way to the house, we decided not to tell Mother about the snake to avoid worrying her. As we ate and talked about other things, I could not help but think about going back to the tractor.
After Daddy’s short midday nap, we put a long-handled hoe in the pickup bed and headed back. Daddy walked with me as I carried the hoe back toward the tractor, and we kept our eyes glued to the ground. There was no sign of the snake. Daddy carried the hoe back to the pickup and I finished mowing the pasture in late afternoon. It felt good to leave the field on the tractor rather than on foot.
Later I found out it was almost certainly a timber rattlesnake. They can be impressively large, up to five feet long. Luckily, they are timid and try to avoid humans if they can. The problem with the one I met was that I was about to step on it, putting it in defensive mode.
Timber Rattlesnake. (Photo Credit.)
If a rattlesnake were to come toward me, and most are not inclined to, I no doubt would make some noise myself. And I would probably give the snake a chill up its curvy spine. If Gary Larson were here, he could tell me what snakes say about people. Most of them probably don’t like us very much.