A truck on the fire road on its way to Mt. Lukens passed me, nice and slowly to keep down the cloud of dust. A hundred yards ahead it stopped, the driver and passenger got out and stood by the side of the road.
"Be careful," they shouted. "There's a rattlesnake here."
I walked up and saw not just a snake but a few inches away a rat lying on its side. "It's alive," I said, more to myself than anyone else. It had looked so dead but then I saw its ear twitch and a tremble going the length of its body. The snake slithered nearer, its fangs shot out and the rat jumped nearly a foot, as though it had touched a live wire, shuddered horribly and then lay still.
The snake wound its way unhurriedly to a hole in the rocks by the roadside. "It'll be back later for dinner," the driver commented, and we all moved on.
Twenty minutes later I had finished my hike and was back at the same place. By now the rat was lying on the other side of the road, three or four feet from where I first saw it, and the snake was the same few inches away from it.
I saw a slight movement. "It's still alive," I said out loud, though this time no one was there.
The snake moved closer, cautious as ever, and struck again. Again the rat, convulsed, shot forward, though not as far this time, and lay there, huddled in what you might call the fetal position, praying to all the gods it worships to be left alone to sleep.
Once more the snake drew back, waited and then moved in, more self-assured this time and its victim's response now was just the slightest quiver.
The snake went back into the hole, leaving what had been a nervous system of unimaginably complex connections and sensitivity lying in the middle of the road, as unfeeling as the rocks around it.
The next morning there wasn't a sign of anything unusual. Why would there be? Within a few miles of that death there are — what would you say? — millions of others every day: ants, flies, gnats, butterflies, birds, squirrels, deer, everything that lives there; and all their deaths in one way or another helping keep something else alive.
In the urbane salons of the 18th century, there was a famous joke about it:
"Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em
And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum."
So, yes, it's a commonplace thing — indeed, perhaps the most commonplace of all the facts of life — though that doesn't make that tiny step from high-strung liveliness to annihilation any less shocking. But it also carries a useful lesson, a reminder that, when taking sides on any issue, there is always another point of view.
REG GREEN lives in La Cañada. His website is www.nicholasgreen.org.