Monthly Aphorism: On Preventing Problems

  • You get one chance to throw the snake over the side

The Great Greene grew up in the Midwest, with the type of summer job one might expect of a teen in an area surrounded by grain fields. One summer he found himself standing knee-deep in the wheat pouring into a cart beside a combine harvester, tasked with shoveling grain into the corners to level the load.

In addition to combines, the fields were full of rattlesnakes.

A rattlesnake adopts a characteristic pose when it senses a predator: body coiled, head and tail up, rattle vibrating vigorously. The smaller critters that dine on rattlesnakes (evidently, young rattlesnakes are tasty little pushovers) have figured out, over the course of their long shared evolutionary history, that such a display means this isn’t an immature rattlesnake and they should move along, move along. Raptors pay no attention, having invented the whole death-from-above thing long before we figured out powered flight.

Combines, having not evolved alongside rattlesnakes and being entirely unaware of the threat display, also pay no attention and simply sweep the entire snake into the threshing machinery, where the snake’s characteristic writhing-ball-of-fury reponse to an attack only serves to give the machinery a better grip. The rattlesnake emerges from the combine’s front end as a snakeskin belt surrounded by gibbage.

The combine’s sorters and sieves and transports that separate grain from straw don’t work well on rattlesnake remains, to the extent that much of the snake emerges from the conveyor belt as a damp blob dropped atop the pile of grain in the cart.

In addition to leveling the grain, the Great Greene was responsible for tossing debris over the side. He observed that the machinery downstream of the combine couldn’t do much more than sort out the larger chunks (it’s not like you can wash grain), so if he missed a snake the smaller bits were certain to wind up in your breakfast cereal bowl.

He said he got most of them…