Keeping Your Distance

How far do you think they can jump?

A dramatic pause in the story lets us wait in our imagination, as the Sonoran Desert park ranger had waited for the response to his question from the woman who was concerned about rattlesnakes jumping out at her. We didn’t have to wait long: She hadn’t been unsure and he only had 40 minutes for his lunchtime lecture.

Thirty or forty feet.

Another pause lets us think about that number, and get ready for the point of his story.

Good grief.
If they could jump 30 or 40 feet
there wouldn’t be any place in the desert
where you’d be safe.

We laughed, as he intended, but that voice in my head said, “Is he saying that whenever I’m out hiking on a trail there are rattlesnakes within 30 to 40 feet of me?”

Yeah, maybe. But don’t start hyperventilating, Isabel: don’t even swear off hiking on trails. Rattlesnakes can’t jump 30 or 40 feet. In a way it’s a shame: Think of the video that drone cameras would get of rattlesnakes leaping about the desert. A drone carefully holding steady at, oh, about 50 feet off the ground.

Anyway. That’s one, from several years ago. Here’s another from last week that got us here this week.

I’m walking on a groomed gravel trail (that smells just like an amusing little red wine when it rains, I bet) at Chapman Mills Conservation Area.  It’s mid-June, and May’s rains have rashly (well, at least indiscriminately) encouraged every green growing thing within runoff distance: Trees and scrubby bushes are in full leaf; usually weedy weeds are lush; grass is growing everywhere. And Lyme-disease-agent-carrying ticks, which Ottawa hosts for reasons that escape me? I expect they’re everywhere, too.

But wait. They’re not, in fact, everywhere. My zoologist walking companion advises us to stay on the gravel path and use the zoom for any enticing photo opportunities just off the path. Ticks don’t hang out on gravel: they lurk in greenery, including even just tall grass. I look at the, um, tall grass growing right up to the edge of the 4-foot-wide path I’m on, right there dagnab it, and I have just one question.

How far can they jump?

Forget 30 or 40 feet: It better not be even 3 or 4.

If time is what keeps everything from happening all at once, per Ray Cummings, then distance is what keeps everything from happening in one spot. Specifically, used wisely, distance is what keeps rattlesnakes and ticks from jumping on me.

Yay, distance!

But wait, there’s more. If you’re into karate, keeping the right distance in a chance encounter on an otherwise-deserted sidewalk late at night keeps someone else from kicking you, and keeps you from being suspected of being about to kick them.

If you’re a lost kid, keeping the right distance from a stranger keeps them from touching or grabbing you. If you’re the stranger, it keeps you from being suspected of being about to do those things.

It can be a dangerous world for sure: Sometimes it seems that there are scary things everywhere. But wait. They’re not, in fact, everywhere. Before giving in to despair about the state of the world, it’s reasonable to ask one question about what can seem like a sea of troubles, physical and otherwise.

How far can they jump?

Sometimes the answer will be a relief; sometimes it will be disquieting. I can’t necessarily fix everything–or anything much–but I can at least try to stand back accordingly.


This entry was posted in Laughing Frequently, Thinking Broadly and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Keeping Your Distance

  1. John Whitman says:

    Isabel: From my time in the rattlesnake country around Medicine Hat, Alberta, I remember from my safety briefing when I arrived at CFB Suffield that they can’t actually jump, but that they can strike something in front of them by a distance of as much as 2/3’s of their length. The moral of the story was, :Don’t try and capture a rattlesnake like you see in the cowboy movies … may capture you.”
    BTW: the safety briefing didn’t explain how to precisely estimate the length of a coiled up rattlesnake. “Stay vigilant and steer clear when in snake country”, was the final message.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Yes, that strike-from-a-coiled-position distance is key, and (as you note) hard to estimate. I’ve only ever seen one rattlesnake in the wild, hunkered down under a bush right beside the path. I was happy to stand at what I thought was a reasonable distance away from it. The park ranger told us that most women get bit on their legs or ankles, as they walk past a snake unawares. Most young men get bit on their hands or forearms, as they reach for the snake’s head. Sort of a “watch this, hold my beer” moment.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    In the Himalayas, where I went to school as a small boy, we had the same feeling about leeches in the monsoon season as you have about ticks in Ottawa. My oldest friend from that time died last month, which makes me think back. We tried to stay away from fronds and branches that could brush against us, to no avail. When we got to our destination, the first task was always to find and remove all the leeches that had attached themselves to us. On one walk, I remember, my friend Dave won — he had 27!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Oh my goodness. I have the same feeling about leeches, having had them on me after swimming in Sylvan Lake in Alberta as a child. I guess we just do what we have to do, mostly getting on with it.

  3. It was a profound relief to me to move from the places in the southern US where poisonous snakes, as well as harmless ones, abound. It was there I learned that snakes can and do climb trees, fall from them upon people or other animals standing on the ground, swim, slither in unpredictable directions across the earth, hide in homes as well as in hard-to-inspect spots outside, and seem invisible thanks to their camouflage so that it’s hard to spot and avoid them in their natural habitat. The “snake-handling churches” seemed to me a particularly disturbing social adaptation to these fellow travellers out of Eden. The fact that the little kids living next door to us in the Arkansas Ozarks hunted copperheads with their little bows and arrows did not improve my outlook. The former resident of the house we rented had almost “picked one” from the blackberry bushes she was stripping in the back yard. I considered it a miracle of major proportions for my particular benefit that during our four years in the region I never saw a live one of those critters.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I’m also happy not to live where I might run into poisonous snakes or other critters – but I’ve tolerated the risk of running into cougars and bears when walking in the mountains or on the West Coast or in the Canadian Shield. Some of it is just how we’re wired, I think – some of it is what we get used to.

  4. Tom Watson says:

    I’m not convinced that I want to test any theory about how far rattlesnakes can jump. I have had other snakes wrapped around my neck at wildlife exhibits, but not rattlesnakes.

  5. barbara carlson says:

    I’m lying in a claw-footed bathtub, water up to my chin, in a large country manor house in Hampshire, UK, that had been converted into 6 or so large apartments of up to 15 rooms each… I hear the neighbours above the 10-foot ceilings. A woman screams, then a man rushes into the room. She shouts,”There’s a huge spider!” And he says… “Those are the kind that JUMP on you!” Then I heard two sets of stomping feet run out of the room and a door slam — and be locked! Too funny.

    Later that night we saw a (the?) huge spider slowly crossing the floor between us (as we sat on facing sofas in the large sitting room). John sees it. I see it. We both HEAR it crossing the woven sisal rug! I swear it looked at each of each in turn… daring us to stop it. We froze, then John (finally, slowly) got up and grabbed the large fireplace shovel and hit the thing — it took two hits to kill it.

    Manor House Country Living Magazines don’t cover the jumping capabilities of indoor spiders. Or how to clean flattened spiders out of sisal rugs.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Hahaha. I wouldn’t have expected to see a large spider anywhere in the UK. Maybe it, like you, was visiting. If so, your trip ended better.

      • barbara carlson says:

        It was a 2-month trip that began, continued and ended splendidly, thanks. 😀 Mostly staying in friends’ country homes, even two more stays at Haddon Hall (Derbyshire) where our friend Nick was comptroller. (He’s now Estate Manager at Windsor Castle, for goodness sake.)

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Look what just emerged from the spam folder! Sigh. And what fun to have a personal connection to people and places you’d otherwise see only in the news.

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