A Sense of Place: Mother's Day in Rattlesnake Country
Knee-high in a clear, spring-fed brook, my sons—their baggy pant legs rolled up, their calves caked with mud—are bent over and straining to capture quick, elusive water bugs. They've been at it for nearly an hour, revealing attention spans much longer than they exhibit at home. And here's the best part: They haven't fought once.
They haven't caught a single water bug, nor will they for the rest of the weekend. But the futility of their pursuit never seems to diminish their zest.
The pleasure of watching them from my camp chair a few yards away—where neither of them has made a single demand on me—is a superb Mother's Day gift.
My husband, 6-year-old son, 3-year-old son, and I are camping at Whitewater State Park in early May. The forest floor is a riot of white, yellow, and purple wildflowers. Before even pitching our tent, we've seen beavers, turtles, sandpipers, bald eagles, and flycatchers. Timber rattlesnakes live here in southeastern Minnesota among the limestone cliffs; before the weekend is over, we'll have seen at least one—in a program at the park interpretive center— though we're hoping for more.
Crotalus horridus probably won't make its way onto a Hallmark greeting card anytime soon, but Mother's Day is as good a time as any to learn about this fascinating species. Recent research has revealed that the long-persecuted and feared timber rattlesnake has never been exactly the surly, aggressive villain humans have perceived it to be. The female timber rattler has a somewhat convivial family side. She can recognize her siblings, even after years in captivity, and seeks their company.
Female timber rattlesnakes show other traits of sociability, including group defense and maternal care of the young, which they bear live (in litters of seven or so) every three or four years. In the face of predators, disease, habitat loss, human persecution, and tough competition for food, timber rattlesnake families seem to stick together and make sacrifices for one another.
My parents saved each year to give us a two-week lakeside vacation with plenty of fishing expeditions and walks in the woods. "Roughing it" meant a housekeeping cabin with no dishwasher. My husband and I aren't exactly wilderness backpackers: We rarely camp for more than three days at a time, and almost always within 15 miles of a breakfast diner. But, for us, the campfire and sleeping outside—the hot dogs, marshmallows, ghost stories, and night sounds—are key. What a child might miss in a snug cabin bed, solidly separated from wild animals and potential storms, is the faint but thrilling hint of risk. Little girls and boys love a whiff of danger—the far-off howl of wolves, a glimpse of a bear . . . or the telltale shake of a rattlesnake.
In his Saturday morning interpretive program about the long-abused timber rattlesnake, park naturalist Dave Palmquist brought a live specimen: a snake he acquired a decade ago from a woman who'd moved into a blufftop housing development and discovered the reptile in her back yard. Palmquist told us that fearful humans often illegally capture or kill these essentially timid creatures, which are protected by state law.
"Unfortunately, we often kill what we don't understand," he said. The timber rattlesnake, he added, "is a symbol of what's left of the bluffland wilderness."
My beloved paternal grandmother was from bluff country: born and raised in Winona. In 1919, when she was a girl, Whitewater State Park was established as part of a burgeoning local effort to protect the region's natural resources. I imagine my grandmother might have picnicked here in the meadows with her family, perhaps strolled on hilltop trails with a high school suitor.
"Can we camp at this same park next time?" our 6-year-old asks as we approach the end of a two-and-a-half-mile hike. We are all uncharacteristically quiet: For minutes at a time, I can hear only birds chirping, small tennis shoes padding on the dried-leaf-strewn trail, and our younger boy tapping the ground with his walking stick each time he takes a step. We're watching eagerly for rattlesnakes.
Habitat loss poses a grave threat to the timber rattlesnake. The snake is inextricably tied to its bluffland habitat. Attempts to save displaced snakes by relocating them are usually unsuccessful. Even when placed with existing rattlesnake populations, relocated adults eat poorly and often leave the new site, perhaps in an effort to return to their original home. Humans are, of course, more adaptable in this regard.
I'm from Michigan, but most of my childhood vacations (including the lakeside cabin getaways) were spent catching up with family and friends in other states. Now that my husband and I have children, we spend a lot of precious vacation time driving or flying out of Minnesota to relatives elsewhere. Our weekend camping trips in Minnesota are important for our sons to feel connected with the soil, trees, and water of their home state. Wherever they go, I want them to really be from somewhere: They're Minnesotans.
I like to think that my bluff-country grandmother, a lover of wildflowers and beauty, admired the false rue anemone sprinkled here on the forest floor like thousands of tiny fallen stars. Maybe she, like her great-grandsons, also speculated whether the funny Mayapple plants with their rubbery stems and enormous leaves could be umbrellas for woodland gnomes. And I wonder if she ever saw a rattlesnake in the wild—there certainly were many more of them around then—or if, on a future camping trip, we might be so lucky.
Susan Maas, Minneapolis, is a freelance writer and editor with a budding interest in herpetology.