Monday, May 5, 2008

The Rattlesnakes of Balsam Mountain

Pictures with 1,000 rattlesnakes in a hole? At Balsam Mountain Preserve?

I never suggested such a thing.

So the joke’s on Google.

Call it Search Engine Optimization run amok. It has come to my attention that any unsuspecting web surfer who googles the term "pictures with 1,000 rattlesnakes in a hole" will immediately be directed to this very blog, and specifically to a post concerning our friends at Balsam Mountain Preserve.


That’s funny timing, since I’d been talking recently about the long, long heritage of Balsam Mountain rattlesnake lore. Mind you, the tradition did not begin with today’s mad scientists at Balsam Mountain Preserve conducting experiments on the venomous slitherers. In all fairness, I heard that the developer’s insurer forced BMP to implant transmitters on all the rattlesnakes - so they could be tracked by security - in order to prevent any unfortunate encounters with residents and their guests. (Have you SEEN the premiums on Rattlesnake Riders for high-end developments lately? Pricey.)

We’ve used radio collars to keep up with Plott hounds for years now, so why not rattlesnakes?

Let’s turn back, though, to an earlier chapter in the big book entitled "The Rattlesnakes of Balsam Mountain." This episode comes to us courtesy of W. Clark Medford, one of my favorite local historians. Born around 1880, Mr. Medford published several books during the 1960s on Haywood County and surrounding areas. Mr. Medford shared this report from September 1910:

It could be vouched for by Mr. Lee G. Davis, Singer Sewing Machine agent at Waynesville, who gets over the county and knows a rattler when he hears it even if he can’t see the snake.

The scene of this story is Bee Tree Gap, about two miles from Balsam Gap on the Jackson County side. The principals were: Thad Conner, Dr. Woodard, John Warren, Dock Bryson and Ellis Blanton.

On September 17, fifteen rattlers were killed, let several get away; September 21st, killed seventeen – some got away. Total of rattlers killed was 49.

The whole earth seemed to be vibrating (with the singing) of the rattlers and the air impregnated with a sickening odor. A snake skin that had sloughed off was found; it measured 5 and one half feet long and five inches wide.

I’ll tell one more rattlesnake tale, but this one is from New Jersey, and reported by Karen DeMasters in the New York Times, March 14, 1999. The headline alone is memorable:

Timber Rattlesnake Puts Development on Endangered List

A sleeping snake has awakened environmentalists and bitten a developer, who has been forced to stop work on homes in the Pinelands.

The snake is a timber rattlesnake, on the state's endangered species list, and some of them have been found near a development in Evasham Township. One of the snakes, which had been equipped with a radio transmitter in the summer of 1997 by a class from the College of New Jersey, was found hibernating on the Sanctuary grounds, where a total of 328 single-family homes were to be built on about 1,000 acres.

About 100 homes are finished and occupied, but the Pinelands Commission has pulled the permits for the remaining houses. The commission says something must be worked out to protect the timber rattlesnake habitats, said William Harrison, assistant director of the commission.

The problem arose when rattlesnakes were found in areas that were ready to be developed, Mr. Harrison said, despite a pre-construction survey by the developer that did not find any timber rattlers.

Also, the plans for the development have changed since the permits were issued, raising questions about protecting watershed areas and the management of storm-water runoff, which also have to be worked out before work can continue, he said.

''If this area harbors timber rattlesnakes and the developer's survey did not find them, what are the chances the survey overlooked the northern pine snake, which is threatened and has the same habitat?'' Mr. Juelg said. ''The whole system of letting a developer do the environmental survey needs to be reviewed.''

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