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Levin: The Crevice

11/18/10 5:55PM By Ted Levin
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(HOST) That rattlesnakes live in Vermont, says commentator and naturalist Ted Levin, is both an example of the fortitude of the snakes and the will of their human neighbors.

(LEVIN) I was on a wooded slope in western Rutland County, looking across farmland, forest, and wetland, a fertile landscape as flat as the Texas Panhandle. The sky was mostly a gauzy white punctuated by a few patches of blue. To the west loomed the Adirondacks. The Poultney River, Lake George, Lake Placid, and the Champlain Narrows lay in long valleys between rolls of overlapping hills. I couldn't see them, but I knew they were there. I'd read the maps.

Although the air temperature was 53 degrees Fahrenheit and a steady northwest wind loosened a shower of yellow leaves, it was 94 on the sunny thirty-foot ledge in front of me.  It went straight up - a rock wall with a sharp right angle like the corner of a room.
 
Where the ledge turned from north to west a jagged vertical crevice two-inches wide ran from ground to summit, like a lightning scar carved in stone. I couldn't see how deep the crevice was because it was dark inside.   

I stood in leaf-filtered light at the base of the ledge with Alcott Smith, a retired veterinarian, and Doug Blodgett, a biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife. We were there to verify a snake den, only the fifth in the state, though Vermont's Rattlesnake Recovery Plan reports that the state once supported twenty-two.

In Vermont there's a hill, a ridge, a point, and a mountain called Rattlesnake and a den, a gap, and two hills called Devil (the colonial synonym for rattlesnake) all of which are without snakes today.

For a timber rattlesnake to prosper in Vermont, the number of frost-free days is not nearly so important as the number of days the snake's body temperature is above 70 degrees, the lower end of its optimal range of temperature. If timber rattlesnakes were classified like garden vegetables they'd be Zone 4 reptiles, only rarely found in Zone 3.

To extend this analogy, if you wanted to plant them in your yard, you would have to start them indoors under grow lights, transfer them to a cold frame on the first of May, and then set them out after Memorial Day. They'd be harder to start than melons, slower growing than black walnuts, and, like September basil, need a blanket of newspapers at the first hint of frost.
   
That rattlesnakes survive in Vermont at all is testament to the hardiness of those rumored to live in the crevice  .
   
I scaled the ledge, feet on tiny shelves, fingers gripping nubbins. Then, eight feet up, there was a newborn rattlesnake basking on a tuft of grass growing horizontally out of the crevice. Several feet above that and deeper in the crevice, three large rattlesnakes and a huge black ratsnake coiled vertically like loops of garden hose, motionless and staring out from the cool shade.
     
Eventually, the little snake slid back into the darkness, leaving me breathless and grateful for this rare glimpse of one of our most elusive creatures.
 
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