I’m a city boy, without any doubt. I was brought up in Bristol and then Plymouth and, as an adult, have largely lived in medium-sized cities: Oxford, York, Bath. The inability to drive coupled with a cripplingly infrangible requirement for americanos means I cannot spend too long more than a short bike ride from an espresso machine.
This is not to say I disapprove of nature, quite the opposite. However, as I think is clear from a previous post, I generally meh English nature. I am not a subtle man: I like my scenary spectacular, my climate hot (without the benefit of carbon emissions), and my rain to be proper rain—tempestuous downpours are far more enjoyable than months of endless drizzle working its way up, in poor excuse for a climax, to windscreen-smothering blatter. I like my flora weird and odourful, and my fauna to look like it lives off something other than cream teas and whimsy. Buttercups and shrews entertain me not: I want a dama da noite and an ariranha that would eat its English cousin for breakfast. Brazil provides me with nature of the kind I enjoy and, when there, I often stay in the village of Picinguaba, which is surrounded by the stuff. But it is also there that, a few years ago, I came up against the limits of my fauna appreciation, on a nature trail nearby.
I went with a couple of English friends (one resident in Picinguaba, the other visiting her) and a Brazilian chap to a waterfall near the next village, Ubatumirim. Visiting waterfalls is a popular alternative to a beach: there is considerably more shade, and usually a pleasant stroll through the forest to get to the falls. A pleasant stroll indeed was had, and then a few hours lolling around and sunbathing and reading and generally being indolent. We started back, and the Brazilian guy was in the front, which was fortunate as but a couple of meters down the path he stopped, held us back, and warned us to be careful, as there was, he said, a snake on the path. Coming up next, I looked at where he was pointing a saw, well, nothing. It took me a quite a few moments before I could make it out, and there is no way I would have spotted it just walking past, but there was, indeed, a smallish brown/yellow snake curled up on the path. Camouflage works really rather well actually out there in the wild, it would appear.
Anyway, our Brazilian friend told us to be very careful. This was a jararaca or a jararacuçu (pronounced ja-ra-ra-ka and ja-ra-ra-ku-su). Whichever it was, he warned us, the snake was very venemous. Can I admit to you that a little voice in my head pshawed him? I mean, it was clearly a biter rather than a squeezer, but it wasn’t that big, and more importantly we know—don’t we, fellow city-dwellers?—from David Attenborough documentaries that nature warns of venom. Poisonous or venemous creatures are brightly coloured or otherwise flouncy and exhibitionist: I cite you the coral snake, the lion fish, and the magnificently-named Pfeffer’s flamboyant cuttlefish, a cephalopod which clearly spends far too much time in the dressing room. So it was clear to me that this well-camouflaged brownish-yellowish thing couldn’t really be properly venomous. Nevertheless, it could at the least leave two unwelcome punctures in my shin, and might sting a bit, so I gave it, as did everyone else, a wide berth.
When we arrived back at Picinguaba I was chatting with my friend Peter, and I mentioned this snake to him. He seemed impressed, and reiterated the line that they were very dangerous. Pshaw, the doubting voice in my head went, but slightly less confidently so than it had previously. On the pretext of establishing whether it was a jararaca or a jararacuçu I got out my laptop and started to look it up online …
… and found that it’s a pit viper. That’s a genuinely rather venemous snake, and aggressive to boot. (Can snakes be anything to boot?) Indeed, of the jararacuçu—which, from the colouring and geographical distribution, I now think it was—the first scholarly article I found said that it is “one of the most dreaded snakes of Brazil.” I appealed to reason. According to most online sources they grow over 2m in length, and this one couldn’t have been more than 50cm. So it couldn’t be that bad, could it? Peter demurred. The small ones, he claimed, are more aggressive and more likely to inject their entire venom reservoir.
The pshaw-voice in my head was oddly muted by now. Perhaps, after all, local knowledge should be respected. And maybe shrews aren’t so bad, either.