Rattlesnakes as emblematic of America?


The following is excerpted from a letter that appeared in a December, 1775, edition of the “Pennsylvania Journal,” suggesting that the rattlesnake be designated as the official emblem of America. “I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness that of any other animal, and that she has no eyelids. She may therefore be esteemed as an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor when once engaged, ever surrenders.
“She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. She never wounds ‘til she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautions him against the danger of treading on her. In this she strongly resembles America. She is beautiful in youth and her beauty increaseth with her age.”
The letter was reportedly written by Ben Franklin but no evidence exists that he was the author. And, of course, when it was written, America had never experienced anything resembling its defeat in Vietnam or the unprovoked attack on Iraq during the Bush-Cheney administration. Nevertheless, the author of the letter had an admiration of rattlesnakes similar to my own.
I have had numerous experiences with rattlesnakes, and only two, the western diamondback and prairie rattler, displayed aggressive behavior. I have inadvertently stepped within a foot or so of eastern diamondbacks and canebrake or timber rattlers on several occasions and never had one strike or even rattle. They obviously prefer to be left alone and rely on camouflage for protection.
Years ago, Ed Wester, one of my former graduate students, was aware of my admiration of rattlesnakes and presented me with a concrete cast of a coiled rattlesnake. I wanted someone to paint it to resemble an eastern diamondback and told a lady friend of mine my desire. She told me the name of an artist who may be interested in the undertaking. I contacted him, and he told me he would paint the cast. He took the cast, and after four years, I tried to contact him by phone. He wouldn’t even answer my calls. I complained to my friend, who by some legerdemain managed to retrieve the unpainted cast.
Meanwhile, another of my former students, Mark Bailey, sent me a painting of an indigo snake, the product of his 13-year-old daughter. I saw Mark later and asked if his daughter might be interested in painting the cast. He took the cast, showed it to her, and she said she would do the job.
After a month or so, Mark, his wife, and daughter came to Auburn, visited me, and presented me with the finished product. Ava, his daughter, had done precisely what I had hoped for, and I rewarded her for her painstaking effort. It was a remarkable achievement for a 13-year-old.
The picture included herewith is of Ava and me holding the painted cast. Ava is, like her father and I, keenly interested in snakes and other animals. Not only is she a budding naturalist, but an outstanding artist as well. Congratulations, Ava, and best wishes to you and your family.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.


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