There seems to be something deep in the human psyche that does not like snakes. Perhaps we can blame the Book of Genesis, the third chapter of which begins: “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals …”
Well, you know the rest of that story.
But no one yet knows the rest of the latest snake story in these parts, which is a plan by the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife to introduce rattlesnakes on Mount Zion Island, a 1,400-acre restricted area amid the Quabbin Reservoir within the generally sleepy town of Petersham.
In a less ignorant and media-driven society, this plan would have drawn the interest of mostly naturalists and scientists, with a few hikers and the general public giving it perhaps a passing thought.
Alas, we don’t live in that society.
Today, anyone with an opinion and Internet access believes themselves to be an expert, while true experts – men and women who have devoted their lives to science – are ignored, misquoted and sometimes even derided.
The ranks of true experts include Tom French, an assistant director at Fisheries & Wildlife, who has done tremendous work over many years on behalf of the natural resources and habitats of our state.
In a recent interview with The Republican newspaper of Springfield, French pointed out that humans don’t need protection from rattlesnakes, but precisely the opposite. Numbers underscore the point: Massachusetts has more than 6.7 million people, and only about 200 rattlesnakes.
The wariness – even outright opposition – that has greeted the state’s rattlesnake plan has not deterred French, who has made a YouTube video to explain and defend the initiative, and was at Mahar Regional High School in Orange last Tuesday to answer the public’s questions.
There is no need here to repeat the information French so capably presents. You can find it here, including French’s video.
But while I have neither the knowledge nor the need to tackle the science of this herpetological hullabaloo, I can suggest why we humans are so nearly universally suspicious of serpents. (The Lithuanians, among others, hold them sacred.)
As early as the late 17th century – within the lifetimes of the first English settlers – Massachusetts had bestowed the name “Rattlesnake Hill” upon various places. That’s understandable. To judge from many historical accounts, rattlesnakes were much more widely distributed in these parts in those days.
“In 1676 Marlborough was devastated by the Indians, and all growth, for a time, checked,” wrote Abijah Marvin in his 1879 history of Worcester County. “But, in a year or two, the settlers were back again, fighting with the hardships of frontier life, and with the wolves and wild-cats and rattlesnakes that infested the hills.”
Franklin P. Rice’s 1889 “Dictionary of Worcester and Its Vicinity” locates the city’s “Rattlesnake Rocks” on “…the ledge of rocks on the elevated land some distance west of Mill Street, owned by Solomon Parsons… In early times these rocks abounded with rattlesnakes.”
And Duane Hamilton Hurd’s “History of Worcester County” had this to say about the Leicester area of old: “There was no settlement of whites, except Brookfield, between Leicester and the Connecticut River. Bears and wolves and wild-cats and moose and other wild beasts roamed undisturbed in the forest, and the place was infested with serpents.”
In two of these passages, the snakes are said to “infest,” a word suggesting hostility, and a conflict with – if not an outright assault upon – the health, safety and peace of mind that comes with civilization.
Add the deeply ingrained Biblical animus against serpents and it’s hard to avoid concluding that our nervousness about snakes – one hardly limited to venomous snakes – is entwined with the “subdue the Earth” variety of Christianity brought to the New World by settlers who viewed the American wilderness as something to be slashed, cleared, burned and conquered.
Any amount of reading in the literature of Colonial America will make clear that our ancestors faced many dangers, including disease, adverse weather, crop failures, wild animals and conflicts with native peoples.
But if snakes were on that list, one must look long and hard for evidence of significant numbers of deaths from snakebites. That search becomes longer and harder as time proceeds.
Today, residents of Massachusetts have plenty to worry about, chief among them the driving habits of their fellow motorists, who snake in and out of traffic and spit venom with their horns and fingers. Texting behind the wheel, drunken driving, smoking, lousy diets – all claim lives with dismaying frequency.
And you’re rattled by a few snakes?
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