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How to Avoid Snakebite

A Letter from the Field


Bandelier Ruins, New Mexico

Bandelier Ruins, New Mexico

Michael Whitney

Several years ago, o best beloved, I spent some time helping put test pits in a midden at a pueblo site in the American southwest. A pueblo is essentially a village of apartment blocks made of adobe and rock. This one, now a part of a national forest, is in a valley south of the Manzano Mountains of New Mexico, an hour's drive from any place currently inhabited by more than a farm family or two. The site was occupied by the Jumanos in the 17th century when the Spanish came, and its residents were part of the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when the Spanish were forced from the area by the pueblo people for 12 years.

The air is cool in the mountains in summer and absolutely heady with tangy sweet piñon; the ground cover is low and patchy with rock and sand and booby trapped with runty juniper and prickly pear cactus. Prickly pear cactus is dangerous lovely green pingpong paddles covered with long sharp spines, each topped with the sweet sweet carmine of a cactus fruit. Mmmmmmm, cactus fruit.

First Trips

I'd never been to the southwest before this trip. In fact, it was my first archaeological trip anywhere outside of Iowa. It was also the first (and to date last) field excavation I've been on that was staffed entirely by women. An archaeological excavation crew, isolated---even insulated from the rest of the world, has an unusual dynamic, resulting from the sudden and enforced intimacy which grows out of relative strangers working together, eating all meals together, and often sleeping in one large room.

Sometimes archaeology plays havoc on personal relationships, because it's flatly difficult for adults to give up that much privacy for an extended period of time. The opposite sex can be an attractive distraction. Romances blossom and fade in the field but the experience is always stimulating, and it's just one of the prices you pay for not working a nine to five job. To rise with the sun and work at the mercy of the elements, to breathe the heady piñon and glide safely around cactus. I think it's a fair trade off. The four of us kissed our significant others goodbye and climbed into Annabel's station wagon, headed for the hills.

Excavation Blues

The excavation took up six weeks of the summer; the summer's objective was to provide Annabel enough data to write a reasonable grant to do further excavations at the site. The data-providing would be limited to some excavation in the midden portion of the site. A midden is, to put it simply, a garbage dump. Economics and subsistence--how people make their living and what they eat--is of considerable interest to archaeologists, on many levels. The best place to find that kind of information, assuming you don't have tax rolls, is in the garbage dump. In the short term sense, the study of middens allows us to know about how we as people survived in the past; in the long term sense, knowing what we've done in the past may provide answers to food shortages in the future. Louise and I were there to gain more experience in the field; Karen was working on her dissertation. Relative strangers.

Strangers from the East

For the first four weeks, we worked diligently and cheerfully, adjusting slowly to one another's clocks and moods, and the altitude and climate. The fifth week, we were invaded by a visitor from the east. A medical student, from an ivy league college. Named Jamie. Never been to the southwest; never been west of Ohio; never been south of Kentucky; never been on an archaeological dig. Male, of course. Handsome, white anglo-saxon protestant, lantern-jawed, young, very smart, well-to-do and likely to be downright wealthy some day. Going to go far in his chosen field. Poor boy.

On the ride down from the airport, Jamie asked "Are there any snakes?" hissing the esses just a little.

"Yes," said Annabel, "but you can avoid them. Rattlesnakes can move only a couple miles an hour, so you are likely to be faster than they are. But don't turn over any rocks with your bare hand, in fact never put your hand in a rock crevice or any place you can't see it. They sleep during the day, and hunt at night, so stay away from dark areas in daytime and off the paths at sunset. They'd much rather sink their fangs into a rodent than you."

A Man Out of His Depth

For the first time in his life, Jamie was out of his depth. Laughably out of his depth. Talk about your culture shock. A rock cracked the windshield of his rented Cadillac as he drove to the site. His new cowboy boots got nailed by prickly pear spines every single day he worked with us. The altitude made him sleepy; he fell asleep on the back dirt pile every afternoon. He burned that patrician nose redder than a Santa Fe sunset. He heard the rattle of a snake everywhere he went. Jamie knew not the first thing about how to excavate an archaeological site, and it deeply shocked him. There was no way he could bring himself to ask a woman to tell him how to use a shovel. We, of course, had a great time.

And at the end of the week, Jamie got into his Cadillac and drove back to the airport. It was a relief for all of us.


That night, we hiked out to the site to celebrate. The full moon rose at sunset; and the operative word here is rose, and salmon, and crimson, and maroon. The four of us perched on the ruins of the apartment block, and watched as the cosmos danced for us.

Annabel reached into her back pack and pulled out a thermos of gin and tonics, and as she poured the fluid out, we heard the rattle of a snake near our feet.

"To Las Jumanas," she said, "and the repel of invaders from the east."

Note: This story is for Shirley Jackson, from whom I stole the character Jamie Harris.

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