Forty odd species of harmless and beneficial snakes and three types of poisonous reptiles—the coral, the moccasin, and the rattler—live in Alabama.
—Alabama: A Guide to the Deep South (WPA, 1941)
Guide to Alabama and the South April Dobbins took her #AmericanGuideWeek Field Manual into the tall grass of rural Alabama — with snake stick in hand and tall boots up her legs — to log a report for Field Assignment #2: Flora and Fauna:
Rural Alabamians have long grappled with the presence of poisonous snakes. With the exception of the coral snake, the majority of these deadly reptiles are pit vipers, which means that they have heat-sensitive organs (or pits) on their heads and moveable fangs—both of which enable them to target warm-blooded creatures with uncanny accuracy. Rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths are Alabama’s pit vipers.
In central Alabama, the most commonly encountered pit vipers are copperheads and rattlesnakes. To escape the sweltering summer heat, snakes nest in places that are cool, quiet, and dark. The raised wooden porches typical of older Southern homes happen to meet these specifications, and as a result, facilitate unwanted interactions. A number of families have lost pets because of poisonous snakebites.
In rural areas, fear of snake encounters influences daily life. Many carry a snake stick even when walking the roads. This stick varies in length and width, but must be quite sturdy and at least 4 feet long. Farm hands put on thick hunting boots or cowboy boots before heading out to harvest crops.
When farmers traverse the thick vines of their watermelon fields, it is with a slow, cautious gait and a watchful gaze. The stick is used to rustle the vines along the path. Summer is not only prime harvesting season, but it is also prime snake season. If residents come upon a non-poisonous snake, such as the rat snake or corn snake, they usually toss it aside with the stick. These snakes are known to eat vermin, so they often prove more useful than harmful.
Venomous snakes are subject to a very different treatment. Those who live in snake country will tell you that there is an art to killing a snake. If you are in a car, you have to brake just as you run over the snake, reverse your car, and repeat. When using a stick, you must aim solely for head. If you are using a pistol, ensure that you are a safe distance away and that you aim at an angle that minimizes the risk of ricochet. They see the killing of poisonous snakes as a moral obligation, especially if the reptiles are near homes or communities. In doing so, they feel that they are potentially saving a life.
After killing the snake, the man or woman gathers the dead snake and takes it to show to relatives and friends. The circle of spectators will closely examine the dead snake, comment on its size, and ask where it was killed. They will discuss how the weather has affected hunting patterns and growth. The owner of the dead snake will usually take the rattles as a keepsake. Part warning and part boast, this display reminds children and adults alike that they must be careful in their comings and goings because danger lurks all around.
Guide Notes: All photos were taken by April Dobbins in Greensboro, Alabama.
Copperhead – Killed after emerging from under a porch.
Water Moccasin above, Rattlesnake below. A man killed the water moccasin while he was fishing. He discovered the snake on the bank beside him. The snake was eating the man’s catch.
Dr. T’s Snake-A-Way – Snake repellent on a porch.
Stuffed Snake on a Bedside Table – Stuffed Rattlesnake in a Bedroom.
Rattlesnake in a Driveway – my daughter examines a dead rattlesnake in a driveway.
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April Dobbins is a Guide to Alabama and the Southeast. Born and raised in Alabama, she is a writer and photographer. Though she has lived just about everywhere, she can’t seem to shake her Southern. She currently resides in Miami, Florida, and is at work on Alabamaland, a documentary project about African-American farm life in rural Alabama.
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