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October, Timber Rattlesnakes, and Ecological Impoverishment

Here in the Midwest, October marks the time when timber rattlesnakes enter hibernation until the weather warms. I usually include a relevant photo with this post, so why isn’t there a timber rattlesnake in this picture of the Oblates Woods Nature Preserve? After all, it is a perfect habitat for rattlesnakes and dens – rocky outcroppings and forested bluffs - but in the many years of pulling honeysuckle all over the Preserve, we have never encountered one.

Recently a biologist friend shared her history with this threatened species. Twenty years ago when she moved to southern Illinois she observed several timber rattlesnake dens on her many acres, and yearly she counted several young in various dens; but now as more land has been developed around her,

she rarely sees even one adult and no dens. Habitat loss, over-exploitation in the pet trade, and irrational fears have contributed to their decline. (People tend to kill them rather than learn how to live alongside them.)

These experiences of decline bring to mind Michael McCarthy’s book “The Moth Snowstorm” in which he laments the disappearance of a natural phenomenon he experienced as a youth when moths “would pack a car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard”. He asks the reader: Who notices this kind of absence? What difference does it make?

Bill McKibben has a pertinent comment in his 2019 book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? : “In fact, there are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970, an awesome and mostly unnoticed silencing”.

I invite you to dredge your memory: is there a natural phenomenon you miss? Does it impoverish your humanity? What does it to do a finely-balanced ecosystem? To help your reflection consider this quote from Laudato Si’: “God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.”

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