“Please, remember this is a wild place. We’re sitting on concrete, we can hear traffic in the distance, and there’s a restroom right over there, but this is still a wild place.”
When school groups come out to a Land Trust preserve, I do my best to include some version of that idea in each of the safety talks I share. I share it because it’s true: There are animals living on the preserves that we don’t normally encounter, and I want the kids to know that and watch where they stick their hands during their time in the woods.
I love that aspect of being out on a trail, even on a not-too-far-from-the-city trail. There are plenty of things out there alongside the trails, but they’re rarely seen. When they are, it’s a moment that’s not easily forgotten.
The other day I watched a pileated woodpecker fly through an open stand of pines, gorgeous with its bold black, white, and red coloring. While they’re not uncommon, I don’t often see pileated woodpeckers, so it was a great experience and inspired just a moment of awe.
Another time, again, just recently, I was playing my flashlight’s beam across the ceiling of a small cave when it landed on a green salamander. Perhaps even more so than the woodpecker, the salamander was an animal I don’t often see – okay, I rarely see green salamanders – so it was a moment of excitement, exhilaration, even.
A 4-inch-long amphibian can definitely elicit that sort of response in the right situation.
A fox spotted in the distance, a bobcat suddenly appearing in the frame of game camera footage, or even a green heron one comes upon unexpectedly: Nature is amazing, and even more so when it’s unexpected.
So imagine my feeling when, during a field trip the Land Trust was hosting a couple of weeks ago, one of our educators came up and announced, “Hey, we just saw a rattlesnake.”
At my first opportunity, I just had to walk out and see if it was still there, and, indeed it was. In fact, it obliged every single group of kids we took down that trail by spending most of the day in the same place, a sunny patch on a pile of wood that had been cut during a past trail clearing effort.
The timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, for those who wonder about that sort of thing, can be a relatively large snake, sometimes approaching five feet in length. This friend appeared to me to be only around two feet long. Based on the bulge in the middle of its characteristically stocky body, it had recently eaten, and it was just sitting in a sunny spot on a piece of wood that had been set off the trail sometime in the last few years. (There’s a picture at the bottom of this post.)
It was beautiful, with the chevrons and brown stripe down its spine. Though it was relaxed, probably just digesting a meal, its head maintained that blocky shape that is typical of a pit viper, and its eyes, unblinking, remained watchful.
The snake seemed to say, “If you leave me alone, it’s all good.”
And we did. Some 75 seventh-graders walked by our friend that day. They looked, took pictures, displayed amazement or respect or fear (oftentimes exaggerated, as teenagers do), and then they continued down the trail, maybe just a bit more mindful of the wildness of that place.