Morgan Bulkeley III: Rare rattlers of the Berkshires
Morgan Bulkeley III, who died last September at the age of 99, wrote an Our Berkshires column for The Eagle from 1960 through 1973. The Eagle occasionally is flashing back to his columns. This column is from June 3, 1971.
Rattlesnakes will bear some keeping quiet about in the Berkshires, not so much because mention will scare the tourists away as vice versa. These rare creatures within the county are in danger of extermination by people. Just as there are those will shoot all hawks, more so there are those who will club any snake. Rattlesnakes have been beaten back to a few remote and scattered wintering dens from which they wander at their peril during summer months, only to return in ever-depleted numbers in the fall.
Contrary to the popular notion that rattlers never got north of Monument Mountain, they were once much more widespread than now. If you doubt such names as Rattlesnake Hill in Stockbridge and Rattlesnake Brook in Williamstown, you can rely on the words of Harold O. Cook, who was Massachusetts state forester for 54 years. About 1925, while laying out the Appalachian Trail through the Clarksburg State Forest near the Vermont line, he was started to hear his companion, Allen Chamberlain announce: "I guess we better run the trail around this rock; there are three rattlesnakes on it."
He continues: "I approached very cautiously and saw the rattlers, all between three and four feet long, sunning themselves. I also saw rattlers on a road in Greylock Reservation."
Further evidence of the former range of the timber rattlesnake is the fact that many towns in the southern third of Vermont and New Hampshire still have bounty laws on the books; and those thrifty Yankees were not in the habit of voting away a dollar for nothing. Because the innocent snake was the villain of the Bible, he has always had a hard time in New England.
That was why six of us set out on Memorial Day hoping for a glimpse of a rarity. The doctor in the party, though a world explorer, had never seen a timber rattler in the wild; on the other hand, our veteran catcher kept a rattler in his house every winter. Our guide was as familiar with his native woods as with his backyard.
To protect the den, which is not entirely defenseless, we can only say that we went up a wooded road east of the Housatonic River. Our guide advised us to cut good staffs to assist walking on the loose rock we would encounter above. He said the site had often been visited in former years by Dr. Raymond Ditmars, who had caught and trapped snakes there for the Bronx Zoo by using large minnow-type traps baited with live mice.
Through dripping woods and dense laurel we made our way to the foot of a long talus slope extending along the west side of a hill. The jumble of quartzite stones and boulders reached upward six or eight rods to the ledges and forest floor, from where centuries of frost action had pried them forth. The slope looked like a quarry dump, and indeed had supplied much stone for foundations in the area.
Carefully, we traversed the 45-degree angle slope of stones that varied from large table size down to that of a cigar box. Lichen imposed its decorative, round patterns upon the square cleavages. Wolf spiders hunted over the gray rocks that had begun to dry in the sun.
Toward the top, where enough duff permitted, polypody ferns held precarious perches where every stone was a rolling stone. A few laurel islands rode uncertainly upon the rough surface. In these camouflaging circumstances it seemed like hunting for the proverbial haystack needle, but this time it was hypodermic.
Presently our veteran hunter detected a telltale buzz in the rocky crevices just passed by the guide. The snake's flat, heart-shaped, yellowish head could be seen moving in a dark aperture. We gathered around in time to see the long-handled, catching tool bring him forth, held harmlessly by the middle of a body as large as a man's forearm. He struck only once at the stick, then lay almost contentedly, held on a sunny, flat stone, vibrating his dozen rattles steadily for 15 minutes while we photographed. He was about four feet long, a moving, curvaceous, color-combination of dark, walnut splotches lightly outlined on a leaf-brown background.
Six men marveled at the rare creature that like them was a product of earthly evolution. Finally, upon release of the stick, in the way of a serpent upon a rock the rattler vanished down a crevice, leaving us free to return to the tame, upholstered world.
Morgan Bulkeley III, who died last September at the age of 99, wrote an Our Berkshires column for The Eagle from 1960 through 1973. The Eagle is running periodic samples. This column is from June 3, 1971.
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