Here are observations and speculations, legends and yarns, even gossip about the habits and dispositions of these extraordinary creatures—rattlesnakes—their reported size, deadliness, and power to charm their natural enemies. Here are descriptions of actual fights to the death between rattlesnakes and other animals and accounts of the strange experiences human beings have had with them, as well as tips on where to find them and how to act when you see one.
Dobie began systematically collecting lore about the rattlesnake world many years ago, using some of it in such regional publications as Southwest Review and incorporating much of it into essays—with the intention of eventually putting together a book about rattlesnakes. Now, in this collection of twenty-two articles, his wish is posthumously fulfilled.
Only Frank Dobie could tell of this fascinating and frightening creature with such wisdom and humor, thereby tempering "the age-old feud between the snake and man." And the rattlesnake—who once aroused fear among even the boldest men in the Old West—can at last be regarded with tolerance, respect, and even affection.
Despite all the fears of summer vacationists, I'm glad that rattlesnakes exist. I was born among them, grew up among them, and have, over the years, encountered them in many places. In a piece entitled "Peaceful Coexistence with Rattlesnakes" in Harper's magazine, the writer, who owns a summer place in the Catskills, seems indignant that neither the federal government nor the state operates a bureau to exterminate rattlesnakes. He simply can't resort to the Catskills without "steering clear of unexplored woods, rocky ledges and ravines." In other words, he feels more in place on pavement than on the good earth.
Country people, in Texas at least, and many townspeople used to keep their yards absolutely bare of grass. Comparatively few cultivated flowers relieved the bareness. The explanation, I suppose, is that grass might harbor snakes. We boys used to keep our yard on a ranch in Live Oak County clear of all weeds, stray grasses and leaves; the violets, roses, chrysanthemums, cape jessamine, honeysuckle, trumpet vine and other flowers being, as Byron said of man's love, "a thing apart." I have a basket woven by an Opata Indian woman in Sonora called, on account of its design, "Snake-in-the-Grass." Looked at in one way, a diamondback rattlesnake zigzags plainly amid geometric lines; then it disappears and all is geometric design. One of the proverbial epithets for a deceitful person is "snake-in-the-grass."
As a matter of fact, rattlesnakes are far more often found on bare ground than in grass. One may be in scraggly grass along a trail traveled by rodents, but I never expect to find one out on green grass. A rattlesnake would be more conspicuous on a clipped green sward than on sand, rocks, or brown earth, where its camouflage is perfect. The "grass snake" has lines that blend with green grass, over which it lightly glides. Most of the rattlers are earthen-hued. Water moccasins and other snakes that lurk along water go into green grass, sedges and weeds to way. lay frogs. The typical rattler is as dryland as the "dryland terrapin." He swims on occasion, keeping his rattles dry. A Mexican name for him is cola seca (dry tail).
One day I picked up a Mexican in Austin, Texas, to do a day's work on my Paisano place in the hills. Another laborer got him for me. I didn't like his looks when I saw him. I soon found out that he was worthless. I put him to pulling up cockleburs in a creek valley. He was afraid to move out of a trail. In the afternoon I saw him thrashing tall green grass; he explained that he was trying to run the snakes out of it before he'd go into it and pull out a few cockleburs. I've been sorry ever since that I paid him anything for his time; I can't say for his work, for he didn't do any. His fear of rattlesnakes was as unrealistic as the government's policy of putting his kind on "unemployed" relief.
On the ranch of my boyhood we frequently killed rattlesnakes in the yard or under the house and out in the pasture, but the first particular rattlesnake I have a recollection of is one I found as a barefooted boy up Long Hollow, where my father and another man were repairing a windmill. Actually they pulled the pipe out of the well to repack the pump. Playing around, I saw a rattlesnake coiled on dark ground maybe twenty-five steps away from the windmill. I called to Papa, going towards him. He came and said, "Where is the snake?" I couldn't see it and was walking around looking for it when he said, "Jump this way!" The coiled snake was within two or three feet of where I was standing. It was not rattling or striking, but of course it was killed.
Another particular snake, which appeared several years later, gave me a more distinct feeling, I won't say of fear, but of strong belligerence and antipathy. I had ridden down to the Ramirez waterhole in Ramirenia Creek after dark. My horse was drinking and I was about to get down to drink also when a rattlesnake set up a furious rattling. My horse lunged back. I didn't know where the snake was and had no impulse to get down and try to find him. After that I often had that feeling of antagonism, my hackles rising at hearing a rattlesnake rattle.
One time we drove a small herd of steers to Mathis to ship in railroad cars. We made camp close to the shipping pens, having arrived late, so as to be on hand for an early train. When the men saddled up about daylight, after breakfast, one found a small rattler under his saddle, which had been thrown on the ground. That snake didn't create nearly as much ruckus as one did in camp over on the Aransas Creek one night. We had been branding yearlings all day and came to the wagon about dark. After we had eaten supper and were about to spread our pallets, a rattlesnake set up a buzzing in the midst of us. Flashlights were then unknown. Nobody knew where the snake was. The hands scattered like a covey of quail, each with his bedding, and no sleep was lost.
I have never camped with anybody who took the trouble to coil a hair rope, a cabestro, around his pallet to ward off snakes. Some people in some parts of the country believed to an extent in its efficacy, the theory being that a rattlesnake does not like to have his belly tickled by horsehairs and so won't crawl over a hair rope, one of horse tail being more prickly than one of horse mane. The theory was long ago proven invalid. One summer on a story-hunting excursion into New Mexico, I stopped at Vernon to visit Bob More, ornithologist and manager of the widespread Waggoner ranches. He insisted on my taking a hair rope hanging in his office. I delighted in the gift but never used it as a defense against night-crawling rattlesnakes. People who live with rattlesnakes take them for granted, though they watch out for them.
One time on a warm winter day I was riding in the sacahuiste—tall salt grass growing in clumps—in the Nueces River Valley on my uncle Jim Dobie's Olmos ranch in La Salle County. The sun was low. I was riding almost due east when I heard off to the northeast the loudest rattlesnake rattling I recollect having heard. My horse shied, and looking to where the sound was coming from, I saw an enormous rattlesnake reared up fully two feet high between clumps of grass. I guess he was on the prod and wanted to tell any passerby not to come his way. I really wasn't going his way at all when he rattled. Rattlesnakes are said to have almost no hearing but to be acutely sensitive to motion on the ground. I rode up fairly close to, him and pulled a thirty-thirty out of the scabbard and killed him. At times I have regretted killing that particular rattlesnake, for rattlesnakes add to the interest of the brush country as almost no other animal. I gave this one a poor reward for the vivid memory he gave me.
Maybe the nearest I ever carne to being bitten was on LaMota ranch, which joined the Olmos. My wife Bertha was with me, and we rode in a car to an earthen tank, where I got out just to look around. I was on top of a wide darn not too far away from the car when I heard a scream. I moved in a hurry. Bertha told me that she'd seen a rattlesnake strike at me and miss, the strike being the fastest action in the animal world she'd ever seen. I'm positive this rattlesnake did not rattle before it struck, or I should have heard it. It struck while or after I was passing it—and was manifestly a poor judge of distance.
Another time I was with my wife on a dude ranch in Medina County. We had ridden out horseback and dismounted to look around. She was walking toward a bird, and just as she got between two oak trees and looked down became aware of a rattlesnake coiled almost at her feet. It didn't rattle and it didn't strike. Naturally she got away from it.
While a flour peddler was governor of Texas—backed by certain rich oil men to cut the throat of the New Deal and voted for by tens of thousands of people because they considered him such a "good man" (he habitually advertised over the radio every Sunday morning where he was going to "worship")—I was driving along a rough pasture road in the hills west of Austin. Across a shackly fence that I could have very easily crawled through, I saw a big rattlesnake moving leisurely off. My hackles did not rise as they have risen on many occasions at sight of a rattlesnake. I stopped the car, got out and looked at this specimen. I realized that I had much rather be in his presence than that of a hypocritical, ignorant pretender to piety and statesmanship. I addressed him thus: "Fellow citizen, you belong to the ground; you have never pretended to belong anywhere else. You can be trusted to fang your prey and kill it with poison. You can also be trusted not to lie. I prefer being in your company to being in that of the governor of the state of Texas. Go on about your business, and I'll go on about mine. Adiós."
I recollect one particular snake on account of the strong odor it gave of. Along in 1921 while I was managing the Olmos ranch in La Salle County, I went to the Piedra tank to meet a string of steers that the cow outfit was bringing from another pasture. Up on a rise of ground maybe two, hundred yards from the tank a goatherder had his camp and brush pens in which the goats were enclosed at night to protect them from coyotes. The camp ground was distinctly smelly, but the smells were not quite so strong down by the tank. I arrived an hour or so before the steers got there and part of the time sat on the ground near the trunk of a long-fallen mesquite tree. While I was sitting there, idle-minded, I was aroused by a strong smell—distinctly different from that made by billygoats. I can't say what it was like. It alerted me, and looking about in search of its origin, I saw a big rattlesnake, fully five feet long, not more than four steps away, approaching the other end of the log. He was in slow motion and apparently not alarmed. The odor I detected was coming from him. I got the rope off my saddle, doubled it and killed him. I had rather kill a rattlesnake with a doubled rope, particularly with a knot tied in it, than with a chunk of wood or a rock. It's more easily wielded. After I struck the snake the odor became heavier—more intense.
In his book The Sense of Smell, Roy Bedichek devotes a chapter to the odors that rattlesnakes do, or do not, give off. One rattlesnake hunter describes the smell of a quiet rattlesnake as that of a green watermelon just cut open, but of an angry or aroused rattlesnake as similar to that of a wet dog. Another witness identifies the smell as resembling that of a split cucumber; another as suggesting the smell of a billygoat. Another one asserts that he never smelled a rattlesnake before he found it and does not believe anybody else could smell a snake before finding it. The most ignorant are always the most positive. If a dog can find a rattlesnake by smelling it out, and some dogs can, I don't see why a keen-nosed human being might not find one through the sense of smell. I am not keen-nosed; I have smoked too many pounds of pipe tobacco. No smoker can be keen-nosed. One time down in the mountains of western Sonora I hunted javelinas with a native hombre del campo. He had a couple of worthless dogs and smelled a bunch of five javelinas before the dogs did. He told me later that he had located rattlesnakes by smell. I've smelled several other rattlesnakes, but the one at the Piedra tank was the only one I ever smelled before I saw or heard it.
Not in belief, but merely following folk superstition, as a boy I hung various dead rattlesnakes up on fences or bushes or left them turned on their backs "to make it rain." We always needed rain. It used to be thought, perhaps still is, that if a dead rattlesnake is left where it was killed, its mate would come to it. I've kept an eye on quite a few dead rattlesnakes to see if the mate appeared, but never saw one appear.
One dead rattlesnake in my experience stands out. As a boy I was riding horseback alone out in what we called the Big Pasture of our ranch in Live Oak County. Approaching a fringe of brush, I saw three deer under a clump of live oak trees up an open hill. A doe was jumping up and down, coming down stiff-legged as if hoofing something. I stopped and watched the performance for a minute or more before the deer scented me and dashed away. Then I rode to where the doe had been jumping up and down stiff-legged and saw a rattlesnake, dead but still writhing, its hide lacerated in several places. I've always heard that deer sometimes kill rattlesnakes. I saw this. On the other hand, the most deer I've seen in the brush country of southwest Texas have been where rattlesnakes were also most abundant. I doubt if deer kill many rattlesnakes.
One time I saw twelve or fifteen wild turkey gobblers making a great to-do over something on the ground in brush. I thought it must be a rattlesnake they were after, but when I got there I couldn't find any rattlesnake—dead or alive.
I'm inclined not to believe many things heard and read about rattlesnakes. Years ago I ran a series of newspaper columns on the subject: "Do Rattlesnakes Swallow Their Young?" Scores of people wrote to inform me of seeing rattlesnakes and other species of snakes swallow little ones (see the chapter beginning on page 152 for some of the narratives). Many people see whatever they expect to see, believe what they want to believe. If they are brought up to look for ghosts, they'll see ghosts. If they expect to find a robber, a devil, or a communist hiding under a bed, they are sure to find him; at least, they will report the finding. In society and in many newspapers any kind of rumor about any kind of beast and often about innocent people is spread abroad. I'm no longer actively interested in superstitions and rumors about rattlesnakes. Yet any really good story about a rattlesnake is justified.
I pretend to no scientific knowledge concerning snakes; my outdoor experience with them, mostly in the brush country of southern Texas, has been only casual. I shall go on looking for something. I repeat that I affirm nothing, that I merely transmit. Some folklore has an interest in itself, whether it leads to any general truth or not. I make an end now by reprinting the introduction to a newspaper article I wrote immediately after the senatorial election, by the Democratic Party, in Texas in August, 1942.
I grew up understanding that a man even halfway decent would always shut any gate he had opened to go through and would always kill any rattlesnake he got a chance at. Well, just yesterday I went out into the hills and came face to face with a rattlesnake. I had shut all the gates before I met him, and I shut all the gates after I met him. He was a big one, and when he rattled and I got a whiff of his odor—apt to be strong in the dog days of August—the blood rushed up into the back of my head just as many a rattlesnake has sent it rushing.
But I didn't even try to find a stick to kill him. I stood still and watched him glide off into an old badger hole under some cedars. While the hair was getting stiff on the back of my head I had two thoughts that caused my inaction. In the first place, despite my instinctive revulsion, that rusty old rattler suddenly appeared to me as something natural, native, and honest belonging to the land that I belonged to—a fellow creature that, after all, I would not want to see exterminated.
In the second place, it came to me how honest he is with his poison, not even the gleam of a manufactured smile on his face. He never lies about that poison, pretending that he is holy. The bloodcurdling, sinister music that he makes is not to beguile people into taking it as a rosy promise. No, that music is not a lie to conceal personal motives. There is not a fraudulent note in it. Even a person who had never learned the alphabet could read its meaning. It advertises plainly the poison behind it. It warns every listener to beware of poison. It would be inhuman to admire poison, but right there I conceived a kind of respect for poison that is honest about itself.
I may revert to my raising and kill the next rattlesnake I meet, but I knew one mighty good man who would not kill a rattlesnake under any condition. That was the noted hunter Ben V. Lilly. One cold, damp night while he was out on the trail of a bear in the Louisiana bottoms, he took refuge in a hollow cypress log and slept snug. About daylight he crawled out and made a fire right at the hollow. He roasted an ear of dry corn, and while he was eating it an immense rattlesnake, thawed out by the fire, ponderously crawled from where Lilly had spent the night.
Ben Lilly looked at him and said: "Brother, you didn't bother me last night. I went into your house and you let me be. I won't bother you now, and I promise you I won't ever bother any of your folks."