We’re into September now, almost the time my dad would start warning us kids to be extra careful outside because the snakes would be “denning up” any time now.
That was on the farm, about four miles from Medicine Butte. The butte isn’t a mountain or anything, but I read a geology article that said it is something like 2,200 feet high. In South Dakota’s prairie country, that’s enough elevation to leave you breathless.
And local lore — mostly from my dad’s inexhaustible store of knowledge, some of it even true — says Medicine Butte is called that because of the rattlesnakes in its tall grasses and shallow depressions. My dad said the Lower Brule people, just the other side of the butte, knew how to make medicine from snake venom. He said it with enough sincerity that as a child I never doubted him.
(Just now I did an online search. I’ve been on a drug called lisinopril, a blood pressure medicine, for 10 or 12 years. Apparently it’s an ACE inhibitor. I learned that ACE inhibitors trace their roots back to snake venom. My source didn’t say rattlesnake, but still, snakes. The first ACE inhibitors were discovered in the 1960s. My dad was well ahead of the curve, already talking about medicine from snake venom in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Denning up, though. The first time he used that phrase, I pictured rattlesnakes slithering from all directions of the township, crossing pastures and fallow ground and fields of harvested corn and shelterbelts and dirt roads, desperate to get to Medicine Butte to den up. You know how it is when you’re a timid kid and you get a crazy image in your head, right? You bet I stepped extra carefully wherever I went from the first time he said it until the ground froze solid and the snow drifted three or four feet high. I spent my time outdoors on high alert, and sometimes I’d be drained of energy when I got back to the house.
Here’s a sidebar for farm people of my generation. We had a Jeep, a four-wheel-drive thing with a canvas top that snapped off in good weather. In the Jeep’s glove box we carried a snake-bite kit. When I was a kid, I liked to pull the kit out and examine the pieces, fascinated by the notion that this small box of gadgets might save a person’s life. It had a small, razor-sharp blade in a wooden cylinder with a cap. It had a suction cup, and it had a length of rubber tubing. In the event of a snake bite, the tubing could make a tourniquet to keep the poison from spreading. The blade could make X cuts on each fang puncture, and the suction cup could pull out the poison.
I wouldn’t have had a clue how deep to make the cuts or how long to leave a tourniquet in place or how to use the suction cup safely. My only examples were cowboy shows, and in those the hero used a massive Bowie knife to slice through the fang marks and then he sucked the poison from the cuts and spat it into the sagebrush. Then he threw the bite victim over his horse and hightailed it off to find Doc Adams in Dodge City.
The denning up dangers I imagined as a child aren’t so different from the dangers in the real world these days. Danger is around us, nearly all the time. Sometimes, like me watching for those snakes supposedly frantic to den up, we have a sense of the danger and we’re on high alert. Other times, like me after the snow and freeze, we don’t think much about the danger. A guy can’t live on high alert all the time. The best he can do is keep an eye on things, looking for signs of trouble. I call that living my life.