Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Brake for Snakes

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I remember being out on the wet prairie one morning. The rock-gray clouds hovered low overhead, slowly parting to expose some blue-sky freedom. A recent rain shower had left muddy puddles in the gravel road. I was leaving a field site in my blue jeep, driving through the craters in the road and letting the water rise in thick waves along either side of my car.  

Something caught my eye: a thick, rubbery c-shape in the puddle ahead. I stopped the jeep in the middle of the road. In the shallow pool lay a stout, blue-tinged plains garter snake. Her fat belly had burst under the weight of a car, split down the middle. Radiating from the burst belly, like the rays of the sun, were twenty slender, three-inch long babies. All dead.  

I remember my stomach heaving. I remember my heart bursting like the blue-sky freedom pushing through the gray clouds. I remember getting back into the jeep. The image of the exploded mother snake surrounded by her young blocked my view of the road. For days, the image was there. For days, I drove those gravel roads slow and steady and with dread.  

I brake for snakes.

Photo courtesy of Nicolette Cagle.

Photo courtesy of Nicolette Cagle.

In the mid-1800s, a dead snake, even a dead snake with twenty dead babies, would not have concerned prairie-hardened farmers in the grassland provinces of Illinois. If accounts are accurate, the region was “awfully thick” with snakes. 

M. F. Lawson, an observer in Warren County, Illinois in 1841, describes what for many would be a horrifying scene: “Eels are not known, but snakes are, to the extent to supply all deficiencies. It is an excellent precaution, when going to bed in the dark, to take the bedclothes off and shake the snakes out of them before getting in yourself.” 

In those days, Illinois’s 37 snake species were so abundant that, when settlers first broke that thick prairie sod, killing snakes – those “big fat fellows” – became sport. Harry Eenigenburg, born to Dutch immigrants on the Illinois prairie, described farm boys gathering and killing “four or five hundred snakes of all kinds in one drive.”  

Another settler, William S. Pearse, described the typical method of killing snakes: “A stroke with a switch or whip breaks their joints and disables them and then it is the custom of the country to put the foot on their heads, catch hold of their tails and pull their heads off.”   

In 1843, Margaret Fuller, a Massachusetts journalist and American transcendentalist, toured the Illinois prairie. She waxed poetic about the expansive prairie “continually touched with expression by the slow moving clouds.”  

Fuller also rang a death knell for snakes, explaining that “wherever the hog comes, the rattlesnake disappears; the omnivorous traveler, safe in its stupidity, willingly and easily makes a meal of the most dangerous of reptiles, and one whom the Indian looks on with a mystic awe.” Settlers had introduced domesticated animals that could make quick work of snakes, including the diminutive massasauga rattlesnake. 

After World War II, the character of the Illinois landscape changed. The endless expanse of six-foot tall big bluestem and star-flowered compass plants had long been decimated. Mechanized agriculture destroyed even the secondary grasslands that remained. In Illinois’s northern Grand Prairie counties, acreage in hay declined 51 to 100 percent between 1957 and 1987.  

With the loss of the prairie and secondary grasslands, the most sensitive snake species in the tallgrass prairie largely disappeared, including the bullsnake and massasauga rattlesnake, which today borders on extinction in the prairie state. Still, adaptive species, like garter snakes, could still be found on small acreages. In fact, in 1947 two researchers – one from the University of Illinois and the other from Indiana University – found 383 snakes in a 3.2-acre field south of Chicago.   

Photo courtesy of Nicolette Cagle.

Photo courtesy of Nicolette Cagle.

By 2007, counts of snakes in the once “grand” prairie of Illinois were downright dismal. Intensive agriculture, and the invasion of roads, proved too much for most snake species. During three summers of research on the prairie, I found fewer than 44 percent of the snake species that settlers used to shake from the bedclothes. Over two-thirds of the individual snakes I did see were garter snakes, but even their numbers have drastically declined. With intensive collection over many monthsusing the most effective known capture methodsI only captured a third of the number of snakes that researchers had 60 years earlier. 

This is cause for concern. Snakes are a fundamental part of many ecosystems, acting as both predators and prey. And the loss of individual snake populations or entire species could have numerous unforeseen consequences. Considering extinction from a promontory, Thomas Jefferson articulated the risk that species loss poses, “For if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another and another might be lost, till the whole system of things should vanish by piece-meal.”

A farm in Illinois.

A farm in Illinois.

While the Illinois landscape of Jefferson’s time is unrecognizable today, the attitude of most of the state’s tough farmers has not changed. Another morning, I was driving the graveled roads in the wet prairie. I pulled over to the side to move a garter snake off the road.  

A big truck pulled up beside my car. A man with a rock-gray cap eased himself out of the cab. He asked, “What have you got there?”  

I showed off the snake like a newborn baby and told him it was a plains garter snake. I explained that I was moving it out of the road. As we stood under that blue-sky freedom, he looked at me, his eyes narrowed. “Huh,” he said. “You know, the only good snake is a dead snake.” He turned around and got back into his truck without a backward glance.  

My stomach heaved. My heart burst again, and I sank to my knees. There, in the weedy remnant grasslands that border dirt roads, I mourned the loss of the wild prairies. I mourned the loss of the wild snakes. And I mourned the loss of the blue-tinged plains garter snake and her twenty slender babies.  

Photos are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. Photos are used with the permission of  Nicolette Cagle. 

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