Friday, March 14, 2008

This Damn Pole Hated Snakes

Chicken Snake and Rattler

From American Impressions by Kalikst Wolski, Trans. Marion Moore Cleman, CherryHill Boooks, 1968.

In Texas, wooden houses are built on. . . a dozen or more thick, round trunks of trees, two to three feet high, so that to get inside you have to go up a pair of stairs. They do this because, following even the very slightest rain, exhalations from the earth, scorched by the sun, cause fever. The fever is so malignant and persistent that sometimes it lasts seven to eight years, sapping the victim's strength and finally causing death. Since in the villages here they do not build houses of more than one story, they take this way of raising a building, on logs, as a means of keeping it somewhat away from the ground.

Between the floor and the ground. . . you find in these houses in the country a quite large space, and in these snakes of every variety are accustomed to nest. Generally, however, those that make their homes in this space underneath human dwellings are not poisonous. Large, black in color, they are very fond of eggs and young chickens, and this appetite of theirs causes the farmers great loss. In the towns the pigs, which are raised there in great numbers, keep down the predatory snakes, but in the villages you meet them at almost every step.

Several of the varieties of snake found in Texas are poisonous, but the two most dangerous are the rattler, of considerable size and thickness, and a small, slender green one with black markings known commonly as "the little snake."' Take great care not to be bitten by the former, as up to now no cure for its bite has been found and death follows in a short time.... As to the bite of other poisonous snakes, in Houston we were told what to do for these. Anyone traveling in Texas or living in the country where there is danger of being bitten must have with him, ready at all times, a small tinderbox, a piece of tinder, some gunpowder, ammonia, and a flask of whiskey. When the poisonous snake bites, it is necessary at once to suck the spot and so draw out the poison. The spot may easily be detected, as it looks like two small parallel pinpricks. Then you must spread the spot with the gunpowder and burn it, after this covering it with a handkerchief soaked in the ammonia. Finally, drink as much as you can hold of the whiskey, a whole bottle of it if you can.

On our journey, and later in the colony, we had several cases of people being bitten by the green snake with the black markings, one of these being the wife of one of the carpenters, who, when she was washing the linen for the colonists, was bitten. We all proceeded to carry out to the last detail the above prescription and it worked. With a woman, however, it was a more difficult matter. She screamed in terror, for the pain was very great. But despite our urgent admonitions to her to suck the poison from the wound at once, she did not have the courage to put the poisoned finger to her lips. Seeing that time was being lost and that she hesitated to use the means of saving her life, a young medical student from Brussels, who was one of the first to come to Texas with Cantagrel, jumped forward and seized her finger by force and sucked out the poison that had been poured into it. Then he sprinkled the wound with the gunpowder and applied the ammonia. When it came to the point of gulping down the prescribed dose of whiskey, again the woman who had been bitten re­fused to drink more than a small cup of it. Again it was not until several of us seized hold of her, held her head, opened her mouth, and poured nearly half a bottle down her, that we managed to complete what "as necessary in order to save her from a horrible death.”

It seemed to me that this action on the part of the young academic, Roger, dedicated as it was to the saving of the life of a fellow-human being, although an instinctive and natural one, was worthy of more praise than the deeds of those great leaders of armies that for their own self-glorification order numberless thousands of soldiers to be slaughtered.

But to go back to the rattlesnakes. We were warned not only to beware of their bite, but even of their look, which was said to possess magnetic power. We were told all kinds of experiences, that sounded more like the Thousand and One Nights than reality. We put no credence in the stories at the time, but later were convinced that more than one of those we heard were not completely just mere fairy tales.

When we were settled in our colony, there arrived from the state of Ohio a pastor of the Pietist sect by the name of Allen, a man of high culture. Allen had visited earlier the farming colony of the North Ameri­can Phalanx, and came to us in order to look over our settlement with a view to establishing one of similar nature in the neighborhood of Cin­cinnati.

This pastor was a famous shot, and loved to show his prowess, es­pecially on snakes. He never took a step without his gun, and saved the corpse of every snake he shot. One day he was going to Dallas, a town a little more than three kilometers from our colony, and as he was passing through a cedar forest he heard a squeaking sound which seemed to come from some animal. His interest aroused, he began going in the direction from which the sound came, looking sharply all about in order to discover what creature it was had caught his ear. It was not long before he spied, perched on a high tree, a squirrel, sitting strangely rigid and yet turning slowly about in the place where he was, and to which he seemed affixed. For a long time Pastor Allen could not understand the meaning of the terror that, obviously, bound the creature there. Then finally it came to him: the stories he had heard of the magnetic power of the rattlesnake's glance. With disbelief he began looking about, seeking some kind of evidence as to the presence there of the dread hypnotist.

What was his surprise when he finally saw him. The snake was lying stretched out on the ground, his eyes glued to the top of the tree on which the squirrel rested. Completely absorbed in the task at hand, that of magnetizing his victim, the snake did not stir in the slightest as the pastor approached, although he was no more than fifty feet away from him. The poor little squirrel still kept up that turning motion, and the whining, and remained there still rooted to the spot. Later, however, the squirrel began moving, down to a lower branch, but still obviously under com­pulsion, held by some spell, and as it moved its woeful cry became softer and softer, as if it were slowly dying. The pastor then looked at the foul serpent, which, with jaws wide open and never taking its eyes for an instant from its victim, began moving slowly forward, toward the base of the tree. Pitying the innocent victim, the huntsman pointed his gun at the horrible murderer, and, as usual, did not fail to hit his mark. The poor little innocent animal, now released from the spell, squealed as if in joy and leapt quickly back to the very branch from which but a moment before it had been drawn down against its will.

A countryman of ours, Dr. Maszke, who came to the banks of the Mississippi in order to study the symptoms of yellow fever and to cure it, and who later fell a victim to the disease himself, also told me strange things as to the magnetic power of the rattlesnake's glance. Dr. Maszke was in the habit of keeping poisonous snakes in his house. And so he ordered a cage made, of enormous proportions, of thick iron rods with more than a dozen partitions, and in this he kept these monsters, observing their habits. Negroes kept him supplied with tenants for this iron house, as they knew how to catch them without fear of being bitten.

For his dreadful pupils the doctor provided food consisting prin­cipally of live rats, also caught for him by the Negroes. The cage was fashioned in such a way as to permit each of the aforementioned parti­tioned off sections to be divided by means of heavy wire into two parts, enabling him to transfer the snakes from one to the other for cleaning purposes, and also for feeding. Into the empty chamber a rat would be placed, and this, as if having a premonition of death, would run to the darkest corner and crouch there without making so much as a stir.

When the barrier had been closed in the partition where the rattle­snake was, and victim and murderer were left alone, together, the ser­pent, no matter how hungry he might be, would always lie very quiet, keeping his loathsome stare fastened firmly upon his victim. After a few minutes of this, which amounted to a silent duel, the rat would begin to let out a fearful cry of terror. Then a few minutes later he would begin to turn about and whine pitifully [as the squirrel had done in the tree], until finally he would advance toward the serpent and become silent. A short time afterward and the rat was in his murderer's throat. In these parts they maintain that the rattlesnake has within himself the power to rob a man completely of all strength, and for that reason warn you to avoid his glance.

Learned men with whom I have spoken since returning to Europe are firmly and completely opposed to any thought of magnetic power being a property of the glance either of the rattler or of any other ser­pent. I can not enter into an argument with scholars as to this: I sim­ply tell as a traveller what I have heard from very well-informed persons living in these regions.

But it is time to return to the camp by the stream where I met so unexpectedly that countryman of mine, whose story of a boot with a snake in it was the cause of this long aside on the subject of serpents.

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