Crotalus molossus

Black-tailed rattlesnake

Walker Thomas



Molossus is a kind of heavy-bodied, aggressive dog. Blacktail rattlesnakes are aggressive, but I’ve found that if I reach out calmly and touch one with a stick, it calms. The blacktail was called the most beautiful North American rattlesnake by Carl Kaufeld (touted as the world’s authority in the ’50s and ’60s). He describes it as gold on gold, based on ones he saw in the Chiricahuas and Huachucas, though in this area many have the green, gold and brown of a yellow-phase timber, the first rattlesnake I ever saw, in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. I have seen that gold-on-gold phase here though. The one in this poem had it.




                                    Black tail its only part

                                    Not wrought of gold

                                    It lives in rocks beside a pool


At dusk I watch its honeyed-molasses

Flow across trail and down

Mesquite-wooded slope to the cottonwood

At water’s edge


                        It pauses to taste the air with dowsing-rod tongue then turns

                                  Quick coils before rock hollow to wait all night

                                                    Crawl deeper at first light


Its size and hue

Its urge to rattle too soon too loud

Its frightening displays

Lower its odds to survive

Human passage


                                          But after a gentle nudge this one settles

                                                    Presses nose to lens to see





Walker Thomas planned to camp for a summer to observe wildlife drawn to a high-desert perennial spring, but then moved up into cooler alpine forest, where he found the added shelter of a tectonic cave. For nearly eight years he lived on thick mats shed from the mountain's trees or beneath its surface deep under ground. He wrote about that experience for Outside, Natural History, and Tucson's City Magazine, and is completing a book about the life that led a man to live in a cave.