Worthy Properties of Rattlesnakes

This was adapted from a column that appeared in the August 2000 edition of Better Investing.

Benjamin Franklin was responsible for suggesting that the first symbolic emblem of the United States of America be our native rattlesnake. Such images are accompanied by mottoes and rallying cries to express beliefs and promote unity. There is little, if any, truth to the rumor that we considered the motto shared here (see accompanying figure) as our new membership campaign. We are convinced that joining is a great idea, certainly preferable to the expressed alternative, and we know that the conferences in the year ahead will serve as yet another annual reminder of what is possible when we engage long-term investing.

Make no mistake. I don’t like snakes.

It probably stems from my personal encounter with a timber rattlesnake while wandering the woods as a small boy. I was reaching into a pile of wooded debris, collecting fuel for a campfire, when I grabbed a piece of wood that was alive! I managed to escape getting bitten, but our moment of eye contact left a considerable impression.

I can personally attest that rattlesnakes have no eyelids.

Mine weren’t working very well for a while after the encounter, either.

Franklin’s Furtive Forethought

Benjamin Franklin, operating under the anonymity of the signature, An American Guesser, proposed the rattlesnake – instead of the bald eagle – in a letter to the Philadelphia Journal on December 27, 1775.

In the letter, Franklin shared his observation that the rattler was a common emblem used by militia. Intrigued, he explored the “worthy properties of the animal.” The serpent has long been held by the ancient as a symbol of wisdom.

The snake is also held in a certain attitude of endless duration.

Franklin also observed that “the rattlesnake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America, and may therefore, be chosen, on that account, to represent her.”

“The eye of a rattlesnake excels in brightness… and has no eyelids. Therefore, it be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. A rattlesnake never begins an attack, nor when once engaged, ever surrenders… an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. Was I wrong in thinking this is a true picture of the temper and conduct of America?

“It is curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as to never be separated by breaking them to pieces. One of these rattles singly is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of a group together is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living. The animal is solitary, associating with her kind when necessary for preservation. In winter, the warmth of a number together preserves lives, while singly, they would probably perish. She is beautiful in youth and her beauty increaseth with age. Her abode is among impenetrable rocks.”

Successful Journeys

The Motley Fool’s Selena Maranjian shared a message in this month’s issue about challenging journeys [Ed. Note — It was about the Donner party.] Going the distance alone is more than lonely – the path can be frightening and regrettably lifethreatening.

Stories abound of once-burned investors who never return. Time-honored road maps, combined with the navigational voice of a committed community, can be a powerful alternative to the guidance of one Lansford B. Hastings, provider of the “hot travel tip” that led the Donner party to their doom.

On the heels of Albuquerque, thoughts shared by Barry Holstun Lopez, in his work, Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of the Raven, caught my attention. Lopez wrote of desert journeys and thirst. “You will have to sit down and study the land for a place to dig for water. When you wake in the morning and find a rattlesnake has curled up on your chest to take advantage of your warmth – you will have to move quickly, or wait until the sun’s heat arrives. But, you will always know this: Others have made it. The maps have been reliable… and the community is growing. We can make a good map with only a napkin and a broken pencil. We know how to avoid what is unnecessary.”

Better roadmaps. Better Investors.

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