Reptiles of America

Timber Rattlesnake, from Catesby, Natural HistoryThanks to the Comte de Buffon’s comprehensive Natural History, every European in the eighteenth century knew that the American environment was conducive only to degeneration. Still, Buffon admitted, “though Nature has reduced all the quadropeds of the new world, yet she has preferred the size of reptiles, and enlarged that of insects.” As his Dutch colleague Cornelis de Pauw put it, giant insects and venomous snakes “so unhappily distinguish this hemisphere” from the more hospitable side of the Atlantic.[1] Leaving aside insects for the moment, reptiles—and especially serpents—have always had a powerful symbolic valence. In the American context, the ambivalent use of the reptile shows up some of the complex relationship between the colonists’ natural world and their political imagination.

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