And out of the log came a magnificent specimen our little Massasauga, about 30 inches long.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, August 18, 1945.


It was Jimmie Frise’s voice coming from the back of the cottage.

“Halp!” he bellowed. “It’s a rattler! Come quick!”

The cottage thudded with footsteps flying from all directions.

By the time I got there, Jim was braced against a clothes prop, which he had wedged into a grassy crevice beside the wood pile.

“Got him, I think,” panted Jim. “Somebody get a paddle and poke in around the end of the clothes prop.”

Which I did. Cautiously, I poked and parted the grass. There was no warning buzz.

“You’ve missed him, Jim,” I announced. “There’s nothing at the end of the clothes prop.”

Jim carefully withdrew the prop. We all listened. There was no sound of any kind except Jim’s breathing.

“Are you sure it was a rattler?” I inquired. “Some of these rock grasshoppers make a…”

“Doggone!” cried Jim. “I saw him. I nearly stepped on him. He was about four feet long.”

“Rattlers don’t grow that long up here, Jim,” I submitted. “Thirty inches is a whopper. I bet it was a fox snake you saw.”

“Does a fox snake,” inquired Jim bitterly, “make a noise like a buzz saw?”

“No, and neither does a rattler,” I retorted. “It makes a dry, buzzing sound, a sharp, unmistakable buzzing, with a sort of dry leaf quality…”

“Aw, this was a rattler,” cried Jim. “Everybody stand back and watch your step. I was just going to pick an armful of wood for the stove and there he was a great big chocolate brown brute, crawling up that crevice. The minute he saw me, he sort of drew himself together and started to rattle. I’ve seen lots of them. I know a rattler when I see him.”

“A fox snake,” I stated, “has a trick of vibrating the tip of his tail in the hope that he’ll be mistaken for a rattler.”

“I tell you this was a rattler, and a big one,” asserted Jim angrily. “I know a fox snake. He’s slim and bright colored. This was a fat snake, dark chocolate brown…”

“Coffee-grounds color,” I suggested.

“Darker,” said Jim. “I grabbed the clothes prop and by the time I got back, he was just heading into the wood pile at that crevice. I thought I had him pinned.”

“If you’d pinned him,” I said, “We all could have heard him rattling even inside the house.”

“Okay, if he’s in the wood pile,” said Jim, rolling up his sleeves, “Let’s get him. We can rout him out.”

And Jim started poking the prop in amidst the piled wood.

We took up various vantage points while Jim poked and poked amongst the billets. After a few moments, I took the paddle and, standing well clear, jabbed and banged.

“If there was a rattler in there,” I ventured, “We’d have heard from him by now.”

“Well, there’s a rattler in there,” asserted Jim hotly.

Taking No Chances

We took a few more exploratory pokes. We stood back and listened. And then, to express my convictions, I stepped up and picked an armful of wood. Cautiously, I will admit. And picking each stick with my finger tips, as it were. And keeping myself on springs, ready to jump, if necessary.

Jim threw the clothes prop away petulantly.

“Okay,” he said. “If you want to be a fool.”

“Aw, Jim,” I said, “You exaggerate rattlers. Their bite isn’t much worse than a few bee stings.”

And I carried the armful of wood into the kitchen wood-box with that debonair quality which is, I suppose, the most irritating of all human poses. We regathered on the cottage veranda and I lit up my pipe and set myself for a lecture on the natural history of rattlers.

“This rattler we have up on the Georgian Bay,” I propounded, “is called the Massasauga by the scientists. It’s the same one that used to abound around the Niagara gorge and up in the Bruce peninsula. It’s nothing whatever like the big diamond back rattler of Texas and the southern states. That’s a huge snake, with enough venom to kill a man in a few minutes. But our little rattler is a lethargic, fat little reptile that ordinarily runs around 20 to 24 inches. A 30-incher is a whopper.”

“They’re mighty dangerous creatures,” declared Jim, rolling down his sleeves, and glancing sideways off the veranda towards the wood pile.

“Personally,” I said, “I’ve never known of anybody dying from the bite of one of our little Massasaugas…”

“Aw,” snorted Jim, angrily. “Our little Massasaugas!”

And he mimicked me rather wickedly, sort of blowing himself up.

“It stands to reason,” I continued. “Nature doesn’t overdo anything. This little snake eats mice and frogs as its largest prey. So nature equips it with enough venom to knock out these small creatures. If a larger creature gets bitten, all it does is swell up and get numb for a while.”

“I don’t like being numb,” muttered Jim, “Even for a couple of minutes.”

“When I was a young guy up here,” I pursued, “I saw an Indian girl who had been bitten on the thigh while kneeling in a blueberry patch, picking berries. She got a good fair puncture, by two fangs, right in the fat of the thigh. She was pretty sick. Her leg swelled. The poison seemed to have a nerve-shattering effect, either that or the thought of being bitten by the snake. For she was simply a quaking jelly of fright and nerve collapse.

“Boy, just the sight of a rattler gives me the quakes,” said Jim, getting up and standing at the far end of the veranda to look at the wood pile.

“It also affected her breathing, or her heart,” I continued. “Because she had difficulty breathing. And it ached terribly.”

“Well, did she die?” demanded Jim.

“No, we got her out to a doctor who had a cottage near here,” I said, “It was too late to open the wound to bleed. He gave her sedatives. And after a couple of days, the swelling went down. And she was okay.”

“I bet she never picked another berry,” muttered Jim.

Just Kicked Them Aside

“I saw her for years afterwards, I countered. “She was the best berry-picker of all the tribe. And as for rattlesnakes, she said she just kicked them aside whenever she encountered them. She said having a child was 10 times worse than a rattlesnake bite.”

“Do you know of any other cases?” asked Jim.

“I once interviewed a railroad man,” I said, “who was bitten on the wrist while picking berries along the tracks one day when the freight train was sided. He suffered agonizing pain, his arm swelled up like a stove pipe, he went through all the nerve agony and smothering feeling the Indian girl described.”

“Yet,” cried Jim, “you think it a small matter that there is a rattler in our wood pile right outside the door!”

“George Hebden Corsan,” I recounted, “the naturalist and health expert, was bitten by a copperhead down in the States when he was a young man. And he recovered. And he credits the snake venom with giving him the tremendous heart and wonderful stamina he has enjoyed all his life…”

To hear you talk,” declared Jim, “you’d think you would encourage rattlers around here.”

“Well, in a sense I do,” I pondered. “After all, we can’t let blind prejudice rule us. The rattler is the greatest mousetrap in the world. A rattler will hang around a mouse nest until he has trapped and eaten every mouse in the place. He is a lazy snake. He doesn’t have to hustle out of any enemy’s way. He just waddles through life heavy and fat, and lets go his warning whenever any danger threatens. He finds a good mouse territory and stays right there.”

“We have a plague of mice this year,” ruminated Jim.

“I’ve never seen so many mice around the cottage as this year,” I agreed. “Probably because we have killed all the rattlers within miles of us. We have upset nature’s balance. I bet that woodpile has a dozen mouse nests in it.”

“So we ought to encourage that big black rattler,” snorted Jimmie. “And put saucers of milk out for him at nights!”

“A rattler,” I said, “can do no harm unless you interfere with him. He minds his own business. Which is catching mice. He gives everybody fair warning. Not many other dangerous creatures do that. He is equipped with dangerous poison. So nature also equips him with a warning signal. It turns after due consideration, that the rattler is one of nature’s better ideas.”

“What a mind!” breathed Jimmie.

“We can have our choice,” I said “between a nice respectable rattler which does us no harm in the ordinary course. Or mice, which do nothing but harm in the ordinary course. Mice can ruin our cottage. They can get into the mattresses and the bedding. They can stink out the joint. They can do maybe a hundred or two hundred cash dollars’ worth of damage in one season. Yet, because of an ancient prejudice in the human mind, we persecute the creature whose business in life is to save us hundreds of dollars a year!”

“I never heard such reasoning,” bit Jim.

“It’s the same in human nature,” I pointed out. “There isn’t a successful business enterprise in the world that hasn’t at least one human rattlesnake in it. Nobody likes him. He is dangerous. One bite and you’re done. Yet he is so useful, crawling around the factory or the office, he keeps the mice down so wonderfully, that it would be crazy to get rid of him. In fact, the business would go to pot without him.”

“A horrible simile,” cut in Jim. “Human rattlesnakes.”

‘Yes,” I said, “and they’ve usually got a warning, too. They are people who give plenty of warning of the sting they carry. They go about cleaning up the vermin in the plant. Keeping down the mice nests and the pests that would soon eat up all the profits.”

“Horrible,” said Jim.

“We’ve got a great problem facing the world right now,” I pursued, “in the Nazis. You have to keep the balance of nature or suffer the consequences. You have to keep the balance of human nature the same way. There are certain people in the world who play the role of the rattler in human affairs. The Nazi is clearly marked, like the rattler. He gives loud warning. All the years before the outbreak of war, anybody who know rattlesnakes should have recognized the sounds coming out of Germany.”

“The rest of the world,” pointed out Jimmie, “did exactly with the Germans what you advocate we do with our woodpile. The rest of the world said, let’s encourage the Nazis to keep down the pests of the Communists.”

“Hmmm,” I said, finding myself out on a limb.

“The principle of keeping dangerous creatures in the hope that they will keep down troublesome creatures never did work.”

“What we think of as pests aren’t pests at all. They are creatures with the same right to life as our right. When we in our arrogance, set up a cottage in the wilderness, invading the natural territory of the mice, we are not content to set up proper defences of our property. For a few more dollars, we could build a mouse-tight cottage. But no. We set traps and spread poison and make war on these little people whose domain we have invaded. And we end up, finally, by taking the point of view that it is better to let rattlesnakes live to keep our property safe. The politicians of Britain, France, and America made that same mistake. They, too, arrived at the stage of encouraging rattlers rather than making their premises tight against their fancied pests.”

Jim had me.

“Well,” I said, “if it comes to that, how about the right to life of the rattler? You talk about our arrogance in setting up our cottages in the domain of the mice. How about setting up our cottages in the domain of the rattlers? Hadn’t we human beings better get right off the earth? We’re interfering with so much!”

“We’re the only creature in nature,” said Jimmie, “that can manufacture a trap or build a mouse-proof dwelling. I say we should rid the world of its rattlesnakes and other dangerous creatures, while at the same time organizing our own economy so as to interfere as little as possible with the non-dangerous creatures. For every rattlesnake we have to kill, let us invent some new measure for making the world safer for mice and all other fellow-creatures who do us no damage save dollar damage.”

“Fellow – creatures?” I sniffed.

“Sure,” said Jim. “We have to work out a philosophy of life. We haven’t got one yet. Every 20 or 30 years we go on a wild rampage against each other, slaughtering our fellow-humans, only because we have no philosophy about life as a whole. Our religion, our politics, our philosophy, take no account of any life but human life. All other life, animal and vegetable, is lawlessly sacrificed to our own ends. It is time some strong philosophic sect rose amongst us western races – we’re the really dangerous ones – which takes into account all life on earth, from the lowliest to the highest.”

“Buddhism?” I inquired.

“Let’s invent one suited to us,” Jim suggested.

“I could grow very fond of rattlers,” I mused. “When I was a boy up here, I used to collect them.”

“Collect them?” shuddered Jimmie.

Old Ananias Greg

“Used to go out in my canoe,” I explained, “at dusk, along the sandy and weedy beaches where the rattlers are hunting frogs. I had forked stick and a potato sack. I would push my canoe among the reeds and spat my paddle on the water. If there was a rattler on the beach, he would give a little startled buzz. Then I’d go in and tire him out with my forked stick. He’d strike and strike until he was exhausted. Then I’d pin his neck with my forked stick, pick him up and drop him in the sack.”

“And take him home and cook him, I suppose,” gaggled Jim.

“Naw, they’re nothing to be afraid of,” I assured him. “I’d keep them for a few days in a box, feed them frogs, and then send them to the Biological Station. The students loved them.”

“Pffff,” shivered Jimmie.

“Come on,” I said, rising. “Let’s go out to the wood pile and I’ll chase your fox snake out.”

“It was no fox snake,” said Jim.

We took the clothes prop and the paddle and poked and shoved and heaved the wood around. Not a sound.

“Jim,” I said, “If there was a rattler in that woodpile, we couldn’t have come within 10 feet of it without the gentleman giving us a warning.”

“It’s nice,” said Jim, “to have somebody right on the premises who knows so much about rattlers.”

“Go ahead,” I said, “Pick an armful of stove wood. I’ll take a load of these big chunks for the living-room stove. The nights are getting cool enough for a little fire.”

Jim hastily snatched up an armful of the stove wood and took it into the kitchen box to split for the kitchen stove. I poked and poked around for a particularly nice selection of these pieces and carried them into the living-room.

As I approached the stove, the armful got a little out of hand, as big armfuls do. And they started to slide.

“Look out!” screeched Jim.

“Let ’em go…” I began.

But an awful and age-old sound bit the silent peace of the living room. It was a sibilant, writhing, stinging sound. Not a buzz, not a dead leaf sound, but a very living sound, one of the oldest and most malignant sounds in all nature and from all time.

One of the billets I was carrying was a hollow oak log.

Thirty Inches of Snake

And out of the log, sliding and lashing and zinging its nine-jointed rattle in a fury of temper, came a magnificent specimen of our little Massasauga, about 30 inches long. And landed with a rich plop right on the living-room floor about a foot from my feet.

I dropped the whole armful on him.

I leaped back and snatched the nearest hunk and bashed it down.

“Easy, easy,” screeched Jim. “Don’t mash him on the good floor!”

But philosophy is a fragile thing. And what a man says or even what he believes, can hardly stand up to the test when it comes to his own living-room.

So I bashed several times more, all the while dancing on my toes like a hen on a hot griddle.

And Jim stood back in the corner roaring. With laughter.

And when I had done and the serpent was flattened all over the floor amid the cordwood, I felt very weak and took to trembling.

And Jimmie, emitting whoops of laughter and joy, took me and led me to the couch, where I lay down, very grateful.

“What a picture,” roared Jim; “what a picture you made, hopping around on tip-toe and at the same time trying to hit that poor little creature with a log of stove wood!”

“I don’t mind rattlers,” I explained weakly from the couch, “except in the house…”

Editor’s Notes: A clothes prop is a long wooden pole with a forked end, used to raise a line of washing to enable it to catch the breeze.

The Massasauga rattlesnake is Ontario’s only venomous snake, and is currently threatened, which means the species lives in the wild in Ontario, is not endangered, but is likely to become endangered if steps are not taken to address factors threatening it.

The Eastern fox snake is non-venomous, but is also threatened or endangered in areas of Ontario.

George Hebdon Corsan was known as the “The Nut Man of Islington”. In the 1920s he had a regular column in the Toronto Star called “Wild Life on the Humber”, and Greg knew him personally, and said he was “the only crank and fanatic I have ever known who has a sense of humour, delights in being a crank, rejoices in his fanaticism, and knows exactly what each and every person he meets thinks of him!”