Now, each summer as I look down the rusted wire fence lines of Alachua County, what few fence lines that are left, I see blackberries in the thousands hanging from their thorny limbs, and remember a time of endless hot summer days spent eating watermelon or blackberry cobbler. Then sitting on the porch with our out stretched bellies listening to whippoorwills throw calls in the distance as our day fell into night, and the pale moon crept slowly in the star filled sky. Homemade Blackberry Cobbler was always a favorite for me growing up. Each cobbler was picked with careful hands, for we as kids were well aware of the dangers that lay coiled waiting to strike within the brier patch. Eastern Diamondbacks were plentiful in our neck of the woods and greatly respected. Their muscled bodies and oversize triangular shaped head, dressed with flowing scales of diamonds down their backs were something we learned to recognize early on in our lives. To look upon one, with its forked tongue tasting the air and its rattle buzzing at full speed was something very frightening to a child’s mind. The largest snake killed on our farm was over 60 inches and had 21 rattles.
Living amongst these monsters was just part of life back then and had been that way for a long time. But it didn’t make us any less jumpy or take our eyes off the ground when we were walking through the woods that surrounded our home. I was born 33 years after Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote her classic tale, The Yearling, in which a rattlesnake plays a vital role. I grew up roughly 30 miles from her home. Things hadn’t changed that much in North Florida since she was putting pen to paper.
Picking blackberries wasn’t the easiest task in the world. The mornings were always the best time, obviously with how hot it becomes in the south anyone would think this, especially the one doing the picking. The dew drenched berries seemed to sparkle as the morning light rose in the easternmost sky. Birds would scurry about getting food for their young, and the occasional rabbit would burst through the thicket giving us a heart attack with its sudden movement, putting us even more on edge.
Then, before we knew it, the sun was overhead, and the only sound in the hot stagnate air was crickets chirping. This was when picking was no fun. Our backs would be cramping from being bent over, and we would become careless, grabbing to close to the stem which would almost always result in a poke from its thorns. But, no matter what senses we let slide in the heat, it would never be our constant lookout for snakes. This would almost always lead to false sighting and false bitings. Someone would step on a bush near another picker, which in turn would poke that person in the back of the leg. This would send them instantly jumping in the air thinking they were bit. This in turn would send all of us kids stepping high, moving quick, and getting out of the brier patch.
Yes, false alarms were always good for a laugh, but making a false alarm, now that was a joy all to its self. Because most of the folks that grew up in the same area had the same respect for snakes as I did, these manmade false alarms translated into adulthood.
While working irrigation, sometimes we found ourselves in some desolate places. We were always running across snakes of all kinds. My boss always wore shorts even in the middle of winter. When he was walking, and deep in thought, I would pick a small stick. The other worker would look over to me with a grin and a silent nod. His eyes dilated with anticipation of what would come next. Ever so gently I would brush the back of my boss’s leg with the stick, which made him jerk his leg away quickly. He'd turn and give us a barrage of curse words, which led to uncontrolled laugher for the other worker and I. Yes, sometimes the false bite can be a bad one…