I’ve been living here along the border for over twenty years. There is much I appreciate about the desert and the culture of this thorny, complicated place. Over time I’ve come to accept the things I cannot change like dry skin, a perpetually dusty house, and a surplus of biting bugs. But in all these years, I’ve been unable to shake the queasiness I experience when I encounter a rattlesnake.
This past season we were besieged by snakes. Some we found in the airplane hangars among garden tools and paint cans. Others had coiled up in woodpiles and under tires. Ron took care of them with a small .22 magnum loaded with snake shot he carries in his back pocket, causing me to wonder, Isn’t there a better way? Then in October, a four-and-a-half foot rattlesnake came out from under our refrigerator and slithered past me trailing one-third of its body across my foot; leaving behind the rattles’ buzz inside my bones. A week later I met another rattlesnake on the stairs leading to our basement. After sensing my presence, it reared up to strike, but instead fell backwards and tumbled to the basement revealing a death-like white belly on its way down.
Because killing isn’t in my nature, I had a difficult time reconciling the dilemma. If I didn’t eliminate the rattlesnakes, the humans and animals that inhabit and visit the ranch were endangered. When I was forced to take a shovel to a snake that threatened my dogs, I reminded myself I had set boundaries. Snakes were not welcome here.
Sensing the frost that hit this country in early December, the snakes hightailed it underground for the winter. In a couple of months they will surface from their dens and join us in the garden, out in the yard, and near the house to bask in the sunshine. Killing them isn’t the answer, so we have solicited the advice of local herpetologists at the Chihuahua Desert Museum who can help us find a better solution to control the problem. We all have a right to be here—my family, our animals, and the snakes, but because of our respective links on the food chain, it will be on our terms.
Since our snake troubles began, I’ve been examining the boundaries in my own life. The ones I break because I want to be liked, or because I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Worrying about what others think has often kept me from standing up for myself. I can’t carry a shovel in my purse to use when I want to make a point, but I can dip the metaphorical tip of my boot in the sand and draw a line. Teachers and mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Today, I thank the rattlesnake for the lessons it has taught me.
We have a piece of property just south of Rodeo, New Mexico we call the Tree Place where Ron keeps a near-dilapidated old railroad house that he dragged over from a neighbor’s place years ago. The house, once used for storing all the things our neighbor couldn’t fit inside his trailer or barn, now sits empty jacked up on iron beams and railroad ties nestled in a grove of pine trees.
The view from the front porch looks west where the setting sun moves slowly like a pendulum throughout the year across Horseshoe Canyon. Owls occupy both the house and the tall pines, and Ron has a few beehives scattered in the trees. It’s a spectacular place and, if someone was to visit, they might imagine their life differently while sitting on the porch listening to the trees talk in the wind.
Last week it occurred to me we were finally spending our first Christmas here on the ranch, and I wanted a Christmas tree. Ron suggested we cut down one of the pine trees over at the Tree Place, which is about forty-five minutes southwest of the ranch. With all the baking and party planning I have to do, he offered to go cut down a tree. I didn’t think anything of it when he hooked up a stock trailer before heading out. Hours later, when he returned with a fifteen foot Charlie Brown branch, I kept my mouth shut. With a grove of incredible trees, I had to decorate a giant branch? After the lights were strung and the ornaments hung, I asked my husband why he didn’t bring home the whole tree. First of all, he told me, all the trees were too big to fit in the house. Then he said the branch he’d cut was from a tree that had started growing in two directions. The part he’d cut off was stunted while the other part grew into a gorgeous pine and, like the other trees on the property, would be too big for the house.
It’s a lot to ponder this time of year. At what point did the branch decide that, to make anything of itself, it would have to live in the shadow of something beautiful. As we buy the dress and jewelry for the Christmas party and get our nails and hair done, in the back of our minds we wonder who will be at the party to put all our efforts to shame. The twenty-something girl who just started at the office in September and has everyone, especially the men, talking? The thirty-something neighbor who makes time for the gym even though she’s raising two gifted children and would look good in a pair of mom jeans? How about the forty-something class act who lights up a room with her winning smile and thinks your husband is charming? Or the blonde, brunette, or redhead? The point is, if we worry about the “other woman”, whoever she (or they) may be, we continue to stand in the shadows to survive. I am grateful for our branch. No longer bound to the perfect Christmas tree, it stands tall in all its glory lit up and decorated next to the fireplace.