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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

The Ballad of Berme Road

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

The very first time I ever saw the house on Berme Road, the tenants made sure that I was shown a rattlesnake. It's probable that they liked living there and were not eager to be evicted to make room for new owners. It is a very pleasant spot, but not without its hazards.

I was house hunting, had just given birth to my second child and was on a mission to nest somewhere other than the tiny apartment that had been home for the past year.

The house was a slightly tumbledown old white farmhouse, out in the country, not so different form my own childhood home. Pink and white peonies were blooming in the front yard, locals were swimming in a wide place in the creek just down the road.

"Ya know what we killed in the backyard yesterday?, " the current occupant, a slender dark skinned woman, whose pet doberman lurked at her heels, challenged me. "A rattlesnake!" She added that they had killed it with a golf club they kept for the purpose.

I asked to see it, fully expecting to be shown the carcass of a harmless garter snake. Surely there were no poisonous snakes in upstate New York.

My western white bias was brought up short a moment later when she produced a tin bucket containing the thick, diamond patterned body of what was unmistakably a timber rattler.

I had been raised hearing my mother's stories of growing up in northern California and encountering rattlesnakes as an exciting and not uncommon event. Her father had taught her the two rules of conduct in snake territory: wear boots, and never put your hand or foot anywhere without being able to see where you're putting it. No stepping over big logs or reaching up rock faces without checking first to see if a reptile happens to be curled up there.

So rather than being a deterrent to buying the place, in a perverse way the presence of poisonous vipers in the neighborhood made the spot more appealing, more familiar, more interesting. I ended up calling my partner, who was busy working, telling him about the house, and putting a binder down on it that same day.

That was thirty years ago now, and we still see rattlesnakes almost every summer. July and August are the months that they come down form the nearby slopes of the Shawangunk Mountains to mate and seek water and generally socialize, and our yard is on the rattlesnake highway between their dens and the creek. A man who had grown up in the area once recalled to me that farmers had stopped haying the field behind our house after having repeatedly having to deal with rattlers that had gotten baled up with the hay. We keep the yard mowed [snakes don't like to cross an open area] especially after the memorable summer early on when my partner ran over a large specimen with the mower, killing it and avoiding being bitten by sheer chance. The snake had apparently stood its ground at the approaching mower - they don't have it in their DNA to flee from foes- and of course Dave couldn't hear the warning rattle over the roar of the machine and ran right over it. Had he been six inches to one side he would have missed it and likely taken a bite on the calf. I happened to see him coming in from the field with the large snake dangling from a literal ten foot pole. We showed it to the kids who took in the sight wide eyed and solemn. The snake which was at least four feet long, was thrown on the compost pile like the cobra Nag from Kipling's "Rikki Tikki Tavi". Its spine was broken and mangled, but in its final death throes it managed, bizarrely, to give one final reflexive strike and sank its fangs into its own body, which disappeared almost overnight, broken down by its own venom, which is a powerful digestive enzyme. Dave cut off the rattle, which is kept as a talisman in a copper box on the kitchen windowsill.

You're not supposed to kill rattlesnakes nowadays, as my California grandfather, and his father, used to do. One of my great aunts, family lore says, had killed a rattler with a stick in the family garden when she was only five, having seen how it was done. My own daughter came in from picking raspberries in the overgrown patch at the end of our garden one day when she was about five or six and reported to me that she had seen a snake. I absentmindedly replied, "That's nice, dear," assuming she meant one of the usual garter snakes or black snakes that were always in residence in the yard. A couple of hours later, after giving the matter some thought, she came back to me and said gravely, "Mom, you know that snake I saw this morning? It was a rattlesnake." I immediately went out to investigate, but the animal was long gone. I am just glad that it lived up to its nickname of the "Gentleman Snake" and rattled [it's more of a buzzing noise, really] politely at her to warn her away.

Today they are an endangered species and killing one is illegal and punishable by a hefty fine. After seeing several specimens I reported my findings to the DEC a few years after we moved in, and a ranger was dispatched to investigate. His name was Randy, so we immediately dubbed him Randy the Rattlesnake Ranger. He took Dave, our son Jake and I hiking up the mountainside behind our house, convinced that there must be a snake den up there nearby given the number of sightings we had reported. Bounding ahead of us along the cliffs, he did indeed locate what he called a "gestation rock" where two female rattlers were sunning themselves on a large flat chunk of conglomerate. He was able to provoke one of them to striking at a stick, and then caressed its tail section as it indignantly retreated under the stone. "She musked me!" he yelled delightedly. Later he asked if it was all right if he designated the den location, on a secret DEC map kept away from unscrupulous snake rustlers, as the "Underhill Den". This is my last name, although not that of my partner, we being common law and never legally wed, and I agreed at once. Dave drily remarked that he thought the name very appropriate. Having a den of venomous reptiles named after me has been a point of pride for me ever since.

Since 2005 I have been keeping a log book of my rattlesnake sightings in the neighborhood, averaging four or five encounters per season and including the date and time, weather conditions, location, and size and color of the animal. Every year or so I send them to Randy for his records. I also have started collecting freshly road killed rattlers and keeping them in the freezer, ostensibly for biology students to dissect at a program Randy works with. I currently have two on ice, and at times they startle family members who are rooting around in the freezer for snacks.

I fancied for awhile that the snakes were our family totem. I periodically have vivid dreams about them, no doubt blatantly Freudian. When a beautiful young French homeopathist moved in next door, and analyzed the family to determine which animal medicine we "responded" to, Dave's remedy turned out to be Crotalus Horridus LM3, the essence of rattlesnake. Maybe the den should have been named after him.

There's an elegant 19th century stone church up in Cragsmoor, at the top of the mountain, with ecumenical stained glass windows and a stunning view over the valley, popular for weddings but otherwise seldom used. Once I was talking to the woman who cleans it and she mentioned that she often has to clean shed snake skins off of the altar and other quiet nooks around the building. It seems that the peaceful spot has become a sanctuary not just for the occasional pilgrim, but for the local serpents. This brings to mind the fabled Shrine of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece, where priestesses of the snake goddess Lamia would make their trance-induced prophecies. I've never been a churchgoer, but I like the idea of coming to such a spot to worship, on a high vantage point amongst the resident spirits, human and otherwise, who keep watch over the Berme Road.

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Jul 31, 2019

Hi Sarah,

Cool writing.

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