By Leslie Anthony
I was staring at the rings of
Saturn and seeing stars in broad daylight.
Jack Newton had just topped
up my afternoon glass of merlot, but it was he and not the grape treating me to
close-up views of the sun and other marvels courtesy of a hydrogen-filter
mounted aside his computer-driven, 16-inch telescope, the centerpiece of an
impressive hand-built observatory.
As proprietor of the
Observatory B&B, located high on a mountain overlooking Osoyoos, B.C., Jack
takes pleasure in dragging guests along on his continual scouring of the
visible universe. Jack’s is one of several observatories dotting mountaintops
in an area of notoriously clear skies and comparatively low urban glow.
But astronomy wasn’t the only
science intersecting with the fruits of local commerce. Shifting my gaze
downward and across the valley revealed a different kind of universe—the
terrestrial mosaic of vineyard, orchard, forest, and sage desert of the
southern Okanagan Valley. Officially known as the Bunchgrass Biogeoclimatic
Zone, this desert is North America’s most fragile and fastest-disappearing
ecosystem. Agricultural and developmental pressure are consuming habitat at an
alarming rate, bringing people into increasing contact with creatures that
depend on it. The semi-arid land responsible for the explosive success of
British Columbia’s and Washington State’s wine industries is also home to many
plants and animals at risk—including cute-as-a-puppy Burrowing Owls and
the not-so-frickin’-cuddly but no less important Northern Pacific Rattlesnake.
How burgeoning agribusiness
handles conservation issues will determine whether the desert ecosystem
survives, and the plight of the much-maligned rattlesnake — rodent-hunter
extraordinaire, icon of the Wild West, bogeyman of every Boy Scout campfire
— is a signpost of that struggle.
“I’ve seen plenty,” said
Jack, who wintered at another home observatory in Arizona and was no stranger
to the buzz-kill of a rattler’s buzz. “Almost stepped on a few, too… but of
course, I’m used to looking up, not down.”
Around the Okanagan,
winemakers and other land-gobblers were similarly trying to come to grips with
serpents underfoot, raising an all-too-common question: could humans and snakes
coexist? I figured it all made a good story. And so, in the waning warmth of
early October, with snakes curling into winter dens and gourmands crawling the
Okanagan during its annual wine festival, I set out to explore this dalliance
of decadent and deadly.
I’d spent enough time around
both rattlers and herpetologists (those who study reptiles and amphibians) to
understand the nanosecond it took the latter to make a painful mistake, so
there would be one rule: Snake-chasing could precede wine-tasting, but never