Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Timber Rattler


The Timber Rattler
By Freda Cruse Phillips

Ah Summer time. Sweet summer time. It’s officially here along with the heat and humidity. Laughter and sounds of people talking interrupt the usually quiet areas of the creeks and swimming holes, birds chirping and water gurgling. The smell of roasting hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill fill the air. Yes, summer is here along with blackberries and watermelon, ticks, chiggers and snakes. Saturday the crews of Exploring Stone Co and Exploring Izard Co (.com) met up for an early morning excursion into what may be the pre-Civil War slave auction site of the Dillard family. A small cave, perhaps 2,000 sq feet partitioned into one large room and four small ones, it is a remarkable location that will now require extensive historical research to document. Will Dillard was one of the largest slave traders in the White River area. The 1837 Dillard Settlement at Round Bottom in Stone Co is on the National Registry of Historic Places. It is a far larger settlement than Wolf House from the same period. Will’s sister Lucy Dillard married Henry Harris. Their home built by slaves in 1848, sits at the junction of 5, 9 & 14 at Allison and is presently owned by Guy and Liz Harris.
In spite of the damp air, sandy bottom and deadfall that has washed into the cave, it wasn’t here that we encountered our baby Timber Rattler. Larry Stroud from the Batesville Guard who had joined us for this excursion had never seen City Rock Bluff, the large beautiful bluff off Culp Road that overlooks the river bottoms just north of present day Calico Rock. It was named not for the city of Calico Rock seen to the south, but for the bustling community of white people that inhabited the river bottoms on the ‘civilized’ side of the river (Izard Co) viewed by the Indians atop the bluff on the west side (Stone Co) 200 years ago. Calico Rock was settled long after the name was given the beautiful bluff, which is now part of Stone County’s Ozark National Forest. A little further down Culp Road lays Table Rock Cemetery. Being this close I wanted to go back by and get a photograph of Josiah “Jody” Rorie’s headstone. A remarkable man who deserted the Confederate army, he was found, tried and pardoned then released back home to help his father and brothers make wagons for the cause of the South. Jody had been home only a few months when the Union soldiers attacked and burned Rorie’s Mill. Believing the Rorie’s also to be the source of the well hidden munitions efforts Absalom and his sons Andrew and Hezekiah were tortured and killed. Their arms were ripped from their bodies by horses pulling against each other. Little is known as to what Jody did to stop the killing, but three days later after burying his father and brothers and moving his entire family to safety near Big Flat, he joined the Union Army. Several of us drove up to the cemetery and walked it, looking through markers and cairns to locate Jody’s grave. Recently decorated during Memorial Day weekend, I felt the pride of this small community for its heritage. The older marker was laying flat on the ground with a newer smaller one at the head. Reaching to move the flowers so I could get a better photo, everyone jumped back at the site of a snake curled up there.
True to character, this small baby Timber Rattler remained calm to our wide eyed, rapid back stepping heart beating panic. While I snapped photos one of the men offered to ‘stretch him out’ so we could see how big he was. This angered the docile little snake who quickly coiled again and began darting his head at me. He was about a foot and a half long. I think. The Timber Rattlesnake is one of the most venomous snakes in Arkansas. Its habitat runs all the way to New Hampshire, where less than 25 are now known to exist. Considered an endangered snake it is protected in most states other than Arkansas and carries a huge penalty if killed. A shy snake they will not generally even move when encountered. Laying on a foot trail, they will remain still and often will not strike even if stepped on. Their primary food is rodents and birds. There is a balance in our ecosystem as these snakes, like the King and Black snakes, also eat other snakes. The venom of the rattler is meant to disable its prey. Slow to grow many reach as much as 5 ft in length and live 20-25 yrs. The females deliver live birth litters of 8-10 babies. Because these snakes lay motionless as a means of self protection, it also makes them incredibly vulnerable to humans, who in their fear, just want to kill them. Timber Rattlers den in the winter, but don’t really hibernate like most people believe. In the spring, they emerge from these underground tunnels, often old animal burrows to begin their basking in the sun and search for food. When out hunting for prey, they may travel as much as three miles. This travel makes them most vulnerable to humans as they are creatures of habit and where clear cutting of timber, construction of new homes and other actions by man change their topography they become confused and may end up in a flower bed near a house, a place normally they would never go.
People who kill these and other venomous snakes love to tell tales of how they saved the community from this serpent. As one entomologist says, “The logic of killing one of these snakes is about as reasonable for you to go out and destroy every knife and fork in your community due to the potential danger they hold.”
Babies are generally born in the winter in the dens in order to give them a period of growth before emerging into the thick forested, rocky terrains they call home. This baby Timber Rattler is distinguished by his button rattle that as yet can make no noise, and its large head compared to its neck diameter. Often known as the “Gentleman Caller” because they alert you that they are coming, the rattlesnakes are also one of the most feared and misunderstood snakes. Arkansas has a number of other poisonous snakes that unlike the Timber Rattler aren’t afraid of people. My niece Josie Phillips nearly died after having been bitten by a copperhead at a picnic table at Blanchard a few summers ago. Although rattlers have the worst reputation, they do not hang out near the water nor play dead. Nor will they open their mouths and lunge without provocation and they rarely even attempt to bite unless startled or harassed. They do not chase people and in fact will retreat quickly if allowed. Any story told of an aggressive rattler without provocation is merely a tale. Now, will they strike and try to defend themselves against a stick, shovel or hoe. This baby rattler was highly irritated at our prodding and efforts to ‘stretch him out’ to get a better photo. He had remained still when my fingers brushed against him as I removed the flowers. It was me the aggressor that wanted him to show his stuff. I don’t know the roll this snake plays in the ever tenuous environmental balance we live in, but I do know, not unlike the lengths to which a man will go seeking freedom when enslaved, this little snake was ready to fight the odds to survive.

Caption, Lower Right: EIC/ESC Crew at City Rock Bluff

1 comment:

  1. I am pretty sure that is not a Timber Rattlesnake. That picture looks more like a Pygmy Rattlesnake.