By Sean Graham
Keep reading below the post for two chances to win a free copy of my new book American Snakes.
Please enjoy this excerpt from the preface of American Snakes.
While conducting my graduate research on cottonmouths, I walked through the swamps three or four times a week. One swamp was behind a property owned by a man named Mike Dailey. Mike is a Florida native who grew up in the swamps and woods of the South, learned to hunt and fish at an early age, and is in all but one respect the archetypal Southern outdoorsman. He has trophy deer heads on the walls of his den, along with a stuffed largemouth bass and viciously posed taxidermy fox squirrels. Mike wears rubber Wellingtons and denim overalls while making the rounds around his property, and he has a nicely kept white beard. Once he stopped me on my way up the private drive to his house and hailed me with his right hand up and the other resting on a .357 in its holster. He didn’t remember my truck and wasn’t taking any chances. Mike should despise snakes, but he doesn’t.
Southerners are legendary snake haters. “The only good snake is a dead snake” is a common Southern phrase. Rattlesnake roundups—events for which thousands of rattlers are rounded up every year and butchered—are mostly Southern festivals. Attitudes toward snakes and other wildlife are terrible in the South. Since Mike Dailey is as Southern as they come, he should hate snakes too. But Mike Dailey likes snakes. Hell, he lovesthem.
|Photo courtesy Noah Fields|
I don’t know how exactly Mike ended up loving snakes, but he describes growing up catching them, much to the disapproval of his parents, who thought him strange for it. He used to swim with alligators when he was a child. He once had a pet eastern diamondback rattlesnake he would pick up barehanded. I would factor in an extra 30 minutes into my research trips when accessing my study site through Mike’s property, because each time we’d shoot the breeze for a while about snakes. His house backed up to the felt-green floodplain of a Southern river that was full of snakes, the most common of which was my study animal: the venomous and dreaded cottonmouth. He was glad he had such a dense population of cottonmouths near his house. He said with pride that his swamp was where God put the first two. Can you believe this guy? He’d tell me about the snakes he’d seen lately, and maybe a funny story about some snake experience.
My favorite story he tells is about a snake he found while out hunting with a couple of buddies, neither of which knew much about snakes. He bet them a dollar that he could kill the snake with his urine. They took him up on the bet, and he proceeded to pee on the snake, which rolled over flat on its back, hung its mouth open and tongue out, and convincingly died. He collected the money from his friends, who stood slack-jawed in disbelief. The snake was an eastern hog-nosed snake—a species with a well-known death-feigning display that can be triggered by a predatory attack, a passing car, or in this case, an obscene act.
Mike wants to know everything about snakes. It is difficult to know whether he fell in love with snakes because he learned about them, or if he wanted to learn about them because he loved them. I would often tell him some things about my study. I was eager to observe courtship and mating in the population I studied, and once told him that snakes mate right after they shed their skin. His face showed surprise and he asked me a question that stuck with me.
“Where do you find all this information about snakes? Is there a book I can read to learn all this stuff?”
|Photo courtesy Zack West|
I thought about it and reluctantly told Mike that I’d learned it all in scientific journals—literature that is typically only available at university libraries, and is dense, snooty stuff to read. I told him that the book he wants—a snake book that describes the everyday lives of American snakes—doesn’t exist. A readable summary of our snakes is needed for the American public, and the book we’re pushing is my attempt to deliver it.
No matter your background, or whether you find snakes beautiful or dreadful, snakes are inherently interesting. When I bump into locals at a fishing hole, one of the first topics to come up is the local snakes. Television and Internet media have recently been fertile ground for unsubstantiated stories about giant, deadly, or disease-spreading snakes, and they run these stories because they sell. Outdoor magazines and National Geographic articles rarely fail to mention the teeming snakes present in some wild place they are covering. Snakes are among the most misunderstood and polarizing of the world’s animals, yet the fascination they hold with the public cannot be denied, and that fascination has been growing steadily for decades.
The book is also about snake people. Sprinkled throughout the manuscript are short biographies about important snake biologists. All of them are interesting, dedicated, and smart people. After knowing many of them for years, and interviewing the rest for this book, I have learned what makes a snake biologist. Most grew up outside running around catching bugs, frogs, and other slimy things until they caught their first snake. For one, an afternoon hike with grandma revealed an eastern milksnake. For another, it was a prairie kingsnake in Peoria, Illinois. A California kingsnake inspired one English major to change paths and become a successful biologist.
The reason that I’m drawn to snakes is that they are quintessential underdogs. Most of the snake biologists I spoke to said the same thing. When I was in elementary school, I wasn’t a big kid, but when the class bully tried to pick on some hapless pencil neck, I’d usually try to get in the way. This never escalated into a fight, and it’s a good thing, because I would’ve been pulverized. I’ve always looked out for underdogs. It’s the way I’ve always been. Once when I was a kid, we spotted a watersnake up in a tree. The other kids readied to shoot it with a BB gun. Remembering the Greenpeace tactics I’d seen on TV, I stood in the line of fire.
|Photo Courtesy Daniel Wakefield|
Despite how interesting and ecologically important they are—and really, how downright gorgeous they are—snakes have been persecuted for crimes they are not responsible for. Few people like them in the same way they do the beloved little birds and cute furry little athletic mammals. Snakes are misunderstood and mistreated, mostly owing to folklore and in large part to ancient religious stigma.
Snakes are important predatory animals and are found all over America—from the cottonmouth-infested swamps of the South to alpine meadows above 10,000 feet. They are found from the slick rock canyons of the Four Corners to the gleaming blue coast of California. Snakes are found underfoot in the rich humus of cove hardwood forests and overhead in the canopy of our oak hickory forests. They are found in our iconic deserts and rugged mountains as well as in our cities. You can see snakes in Hoboken, New Jersey, within sight of the Statue of Liberty. Snakes can be found under downed basketball backstops in Cincinnati, Ohio. And of course snakes are common in remote locations like the impenetrable no-man’s-land of Okefenokee Swamp and the burning bottom of the Grand Canyon.
American snakes are as much a part of our rich and proud natural heritage as better-loved icons like redwoods, bald eagles, and grizzly bears. They have indeed been a part of our national symbolism, and before the bald eagle became our national symbol, a rattlesnake proudly graced an American flag, warning the British, “Don’t Tread on Me.” A snake even infiltrated the ranks of our Major League Baseball teams: along with the Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals, there are now the Arizona Diamondbacks.
|Photo Courtesy Noah Fields|
While still reviled by many Americans, the time has finally come when most people are at least curious about snakes, and the number of people who are interested in them, respect them, and love them is growing at an astonishing pace. The last time I did an outreach program with kids, I managed to get every single one to hold a snake.
The book offers a thorough explanation of the behavior, habits, and everyday lives of American snakes that is suitable for any reader. There are plenty of pretty pictures of the snakes doing their thing, and, when possible, I let the pictures speak for themselves, and try not to describe complicated behaviors with words. I’ve written it in the easiest and least technical style that I could.
It’s a proud celebration of a fascinating and diverse wildlife group, some of which are distinctly American. I hope this information will help quash some of our ignorance about snakes, leading to more snake lovers and fewer snake killers.
Mike, this book is for you.
NOW, HERE’S YOUR CHANCE TO WIN
A FREE COPY OF AMERICAN SNAKES!
We will randomly select one winner (all questions correct) of the trivia challenge below to receive a free copy of the book courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press! In addition, we will randomly select one non-winner, who will receive the book just for trying! Add your answers to the comment thread below the post, and we will announce the winners next week!
Q1 = Name two snakes that share the same name as the author of American Snakes.
Q2 = Which invasive snake, covered in chapter 10 of American Snakes, is this a close up photograph of?
|Photo Courtesy J.D. Willson|
Q3 = Despite John Muir’s assertion that Yellowstone National Park is above the “snake line”—too high in elevation to support snake populations—Yellowstone is home to one rattlesnake species, which is encountered in Chapter 11 of American Snakes. Which is it?
Q4 = Which native U.S. snake, part of a diverse group of “truly American snakes” discussed in Chapter 1, is this a close up of?
|Photo Courtesy Pierson Hill|
Q5 = Mother rattlesnakes stay with their young for a week or more after they give birth. This and other fascinating aspects of snake reproduction are covered in chapter 5 of American Snakes. How many adorable baby rattlesnakes are there in the photo?
|Photo Courtesy Tim Cota|
ANSWERS MUST BE POSTED BY 12:00 PM CENTRAL TIME ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 3RD
TO BE ELIGIBLE FOR THIS CONTEST.