Highly engrossing account of a small group of rattlesnakes just south of Boston. The Blue Hills, within sight of the Boston statehouse, are deep in mixed pine and hardwood, with miles of southern-facing rocky outcrops, ideal for coldblooded creatures to sun themselves. Here, Palmer takes us for long rambles and reveries: How, for instance, does it feel to be the victim of Crotalus horridus? In a strikingly original and sympathetic passage, he puts us inside a chipmunk's mind as the animal is bitten by a rattler and dies. The rattlesnakes of the Blue Hills are so reclusive that Palmer tramped the woods for years, never seeing one until he went in May to their stony lairs, where they were emerging from hibernation. Rattlesnakes are rare there for one reason only: ruthless extermination. Palmer has traced this history back to the Massachusetts Bay Company. He quotes Cotton Mather: ``Our Trained Bands in some of our Countery towns...carry on a War with the Snakes....'' The 18th century saw bounties for all sorts of creatures (including 100 pounds for the scalp of an adult male Maine Indian, and 50 for the same of a woman or child). By examining which towns had higher bounties, Palmer is able to estimate where rattlesnakes were most prevalent. Among a great number of interesting essays, Palmer gives a complete history of bite treatment (including such 19th-century methods as a ``half pint of bourbon every 5 minutes, until a quart had been taken''); visits with writers who defended Crotalus, from Thoreau to Oliver Wendell Holmes; and offers introductions to the rattlesnakes' silent US relatives—the pit vipers—which include the widely dreaded fer-de-lance. Prime nature writing, capably focused through multiple views of natural history, ecology, medicine, history, evolution, and anthropology.
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