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NC Press: Rattlesnakes and barbeque

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Tue Jan 25 09:36:21 2011  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  
   

MOORESVILLE TRIBUNE (Lincolnton, North Carolina) 17 January 11 Rattlesnakes and barbeque (Stan Thompson )
There's something fundamentally honest about a rattlesnake. It has spent millions of years evolving an audible means to avoid conflict.
South American poison arrow frogs have very little to say but they have evolved really loud colors to advertise their identity and avoid being eaten by predators.
Predators have returned the frogs' heads-up favor by tweaking their genetics so that they instinctively know not to even think about eating anything that looks like Walt Disney might have drawn it.
Imagine how many individuals had to forfeit predatory posterity in order for that complex behavior to be stored and reliably expressed genetically. Imagine, too, how many only slightly ornate frogs had to perish in the service of predator education. But together they sorted out an Amazonian truce, the tropical equivalent of, "Hey, why can't we just get along?"
The rattlesnake's audible "don't tread on me" warning found it's way onto early American naval flags during the Revolutionary War. King George didn't take the hint and got bit; but then they don't have rattlesnakes in England.
The rattlesnake's evolved design had less to do with chivalry than a with self-serving desire not to be eaten.
But the law of unintended consequences cut in and hogs countered the threat by evolving a thick layer of venom-proof fat, enabling them to ignore the buzz and eat snake, rattle and all.
Hogs eat snakes, both audible and silent--a feast that other predators are disinclined to sample. A hog or two in Eden might have left us innocent in fig leaves but deprived us of apple pie.
Unfortunately for the hog, woman evolved. Fire followed in due course and it was only a matter of time before there was an America and a South.
Barbeque was the inevitable consequence.
While Technicolor frogs and the things that shouldn't eat them (but did anyhow) were evolving in tandem south-of-the-border, the red pepper was evolving in tandem with woman and the hog.
The pepper, taking its queue from the Technicolor frog, adopted a bright red color to complement its fiery, seed-protecting, "don't bite on me" taste. Thus, the pepper was protected against predation by rattlesnakes and perhaps even hogs.
But the evolving pepper failed to anticipate woman, whose uncanny knack for synthesis combined it with salt from the sea; with vinegar from the apple (she and the snake had a history); with fire; and with the hapless snake-eating hog. And so woman said, "Let there be barbeque." And there was, and it was good.
Life has afforded me many encounters with barbeque but, thankfully, only two with rattlesnakes.
The first was at the Uwharrie National Forest end of the NC Highway 49 Bridge over the Yadkin River. I'd stopped to look at something and got out of the car. Then came the sound.
I looked down and saw the source of it, furled for a launch and easily within striking distance. When you meet a rattlesnake, that phrase takes on a mechanically exact meaning.
Which of us finally backed away I can't recall -- nor anything else about that encounter except the location; the dry summer heat; and knowing how very bad this was going to hurt. The Uwharrie hills are thick with rattlers, I later learned.
My second encounter with a rattlesnake was the summer I worked on a track gang for the Southern (now Norfolk Southern) Railway. It was back in the days before welded rail joints and I was carrying a track bolt wrench and I was very, very alone.
When the sound came, it was very close. From loudness, and by the complexity of the buzz, I could tell the snake was very large but I never saw it.
At the first tick-tick-tick, I froze where I stood. I stayed frozen, as the snake revved up its lethal overture.
The scary thing about that sound is that it's very hard to locate. It seems to come from everywhere. I did not dare to turn my head.
The buzz slowed back to a final tick and stopped. How long I stood there, or how I ever found the will to move or to choose which direction to step, I can't remember.
Sights haunt dreams worse than sounds; I'm glad I never saw that snake.
Probably I should be grateful to both snakes for letting me go with a warning. But if a hungry hog had wandered by right about then, I might have sworn-off barbeque for life.
Rattlesnakes and barbeque


   

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