She moves in circles, round and round, beside the road. The guardian is not coiling, not preparing to strike, just circling. Is she injured by a passing car? Is she warming up, absorbing heat from the pavement? Is she preparing to give birth? What business is she about on this mountaintop in northeast Alabama?
I stop the car but don’t get out. I don’t want to meet the Guardian. I am not motivated to uncurl the scaly body and take an accurate measurement of the guardian’s length. I am enough of a woodsman to have a healthy respect for the power of a mature timber rattlesnake. The snake inspires fear in the minds, but even more so in the emotions, of those who encounter her.
The snake has a well-muscled body. As quick as lightning, she can uncoil, strike, and sink her fangs. The fangs sink up to an inch deep in unprotected flesh, muscle, and tissue. The hollow fangs of vipers may well have inspired the development of the hypodermic needle.
Fangs are hollow teeth attached to venom sacks behind the eyes. The venom is modified saliva, a cocktail mix of systemic poisons and enzymes that both kills and digests a hapless mouse or chipmunk. The snake’s jaws unhinge and the skin stretches to engulf the victim, whole. By that time, the venom has done its work and the victim is already partly digested.
Many animals rely on their eyes and ears when hunting. A snake relies on a sense located in its tongue and in the roof of its mouth. The flicking tongue catches molecules in the ambient air and deposits them on the roof of the mouth, in a special structure called the Jacobson’s organ. The Jacobson’s organ is a chemoreceptor much like the human nose and taste buds. It allows the snake to seek out and find prey from a chemical trace in the air.
Rattlesnakes and their kin also rely on heat-sensing pits, indentations between the eyes and nostrils that detect a warm-blooded animal’s presence by sensing its body heat. This sense is so accurate that a striking rattlesnake can hit a mouse in total darkness. These pits give rattlesnakes, copperheads, and their new world relatives the name “pit vipers.”
Snakes are so skilled at using these senses to find food that they are perfect eating machines. Each is a digestive tract covered with skin. Their main activities are movement, feeding, and reproduction. Since they lack eyelids, they sleep with their eyes open.
I notice the guardian’s color, light gray with dark bands, and a black tail. She blends in perfectly with the limestone rocks and hunts from ambush. What could serve as a more powerful symbol of the primal forces of nature, fragmented but still present in the small patches of wild country remaining on this mountain?
The guardian lies beside the road. She is four feet long and covered with scaly skin. Each scale possesses a ridge, a line down its center. The ridge is a keel in the language of herpetologists.
I photograph the guardian from inside my car. With my door closed and the window down, five feet of pavement and a steel door separate me from coiled muscles, striking body, and venom-laden fangs.
I turn off the engine to stop the shake of the car and camera. This prevents blurred photographs. I have not turned on the emergency flashers to warn oncoming cars. Few cars travel this highway, especially on weekdays.
The guardian stops moving, perhaps because the vibrations of the engine have stopped. Snakes have very poor hearing. She is unaware of the clicking of my camera’s shutter, but could quite possibly have felt the vibrations of the car’s engine.
Time is outside my awareness. Present, past, and future merge in the flow of the moment. I am alone, lost. I photograph the guardian . . . “Smile!”