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Jerome Christenson: Eagles, snakes show us there's hope
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Jerome Christenson: Eagles, snakes show us there's hope

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It looks like we’ve got the fixings to re-found the Aztec Empire … right here in Winona, Minnesota.

You might remember from your junior high history class how the old Aztec god Huitzilopochtli commanded his followers to settle and build a city where they found an eagle perched on an island with a snake in its talons.

Well, by Huitzilopochtli, we’ve got eagles, we’ve got snakes and we’ve got islands. It seems all we’re waiting for are a few Aztecs looking for a new home.

Jerome Christenson

Winona Daily News Deputy Editor Jerome Christenson

It’s not all that far-fetched. If we could bring back the bald eagle and the timber rattler, why not a native culture that was also all but wiped out after a bunch of Europeans showed up and settled in?

The thought came to me Sunday afternoon when a flash of white on a high branch of a dying lakeside cottonwood caught my attention as I was taking my daily constitutional.

Two mature bald eagles were surveying the open water as breeze from passing traffic on Hwy. 61 ruffled their tail feathers. It was a sight that, as a child, I had never expected to see. By the time I’d made it to elementary school and begun to learn about such things, the bald eagle was pretty much extinct in these parts and all of the country south of Alaska.

DDT and shotgun-wielding farmers and ranchers out to defend their lambs and chickens against supposed air-borne predation had all but done the species in. If we wanted to see an eagle, we’d have to go to the zoo or pull a quarter out of our pocket.

But before the eagles were all gone, we chose to do something. We banned DDT, passed stiff protective legislation and reintroduced the birds into a less hostile environment. And today eagles circling overhead have become just part of another day.

Rattlesnakes may not receive such a benign reception. They are snakes, after all; and a rattlesnake bite can kill you.

Then again, I grew up with rattlers. They didn’t often slither around town, but go less than a half-mile out of the village into the hills and valleys of Houston County and you’d do well to keep a sharp eye for a timber snake basking on a rocky, sunwarmed slope and an ear cocked for the warning hisssssssssss of a serpent advising you to back away before you come too, too close.

Our Scout leaders advised taking a snakebite kit whenever we ventured into the woods and taught us to use the razor blade to make two X-shaped cuts over the fang marks, then use the red rubber suction cup to pull blood and venom from the bite, or, lacking that device, suck and spit to save a buddy’s life.

Well, over the years we’ve learned that blood sucking doesn’t do much to help a snake bite, and we’ve learned the bounty paid for rattlers snared up out of their hillside dens did little or nothing to enhance public safety, but just about sent our local timber rattlers the way of the dinosaur.

But once again, protective legislation and a change in public attitude has put serpents back in our gardens, though few of us think of that as a return to Paradise.

In fact, Winona’s serpentine invasion has been making national news as word spreads that the city is one of the few to employ a special squad of snake wranglers to scoop up and return errant reptiles from porch steps and garden swings to more suitable, more remote environments.

Still, in a few short years we’ve managed to bring another species back from the brink.

It’s good to know and goes to show environmental doom is not necessarily inevitable.

If we choose to do what needs to be done, choose to make the sacrifices necessary to do it, it is possible to undo the damage done to land, air, water and the critters who share the world with us.

It shows that if we have the grit and determination we have it within our power to deal with climate issues and, Huitzilopochtli willing, keep our own civilization from going the way of the old Aztecs.

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