Nature

Remembering Marty Martin: Local Legend & Global Expert on Timber Rattlesnakes

“The plan is Catoctins tomorrow. I do not have high hopes even though a colleague saw 25 at my focal den in [redacted] on Wednesday when I was at a South Mtn, Pennsylvania site and got skunked…Forecast is for upper 30s tonight and I think it may push those Catoctin snakes under. However, if I don’t get out there it is just idle speculation. Having seen over 20,000 rattlesnakes plus about 1000 litters, figuring out exactly what is going on is more important to me than seeing a pile of rattlesnakes.”— An excerpt from Marty Martin’s email to me and other field-ready friends on October 8, 2020

William Henry “Marty” Martin III was known as the world’s authority on Timber Rattlesnakes—a species of pit viper native to mountainous areas throughout the east coast and as far west as Texas. He unexpectedly passed away on August 3, surrounded by his wife and daughters, after receiving a bite from one of his captive rattlesnakes.

Born in Leesburg, VA on December 24, 1941, Martin discovered den sites, studied behavior, and monitored the populations of these often-vilified creatures with dogged consistency for decades. At 80 years old, he was still pursuing his research with an eye to the species’ future, documenting the impacts of habitat loss, climate change, and other human pressures on his study populations while trying to instill a love for venomous snakes in the next generation.

“Marty was a guest educator for our Herpetology camps for the past 23 years and inspired countless budding herpetologists,” says Michael Kieffer, the longtime Executive Director of the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy. “While his research firmly establishes his legacy as a conservationist for Timber Rattlesnakes in the Eastern U.S., his work with kids will have lasting benefits, inspiring conservationists of the future. He was a dear friend.”

Martin shows a Timber Rattlesnake to young naturalists at the Bull Run Mountains
Conservancy Herpetology Camp this June. Photo by Michael Kieffer.

Martin’s own journey as a naturalist began as a young boy; by the age of 13, he had already made his first mark on the scientific community, proving the existence of a Timber Rattlesnake population in the Bull Run Mountains. At 17, he was a founding member of the Virginia Herpetological Society. He put his scientific career on hold to join the military, fighting for his country in the Vietnam War as a paratrooper for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and for his armed service division as a bantamweight boxer.But when this chapter in his life ended, Martin returned to study snakes—and he never stopped.

He received his biology degree from the University of South Florida before traveling the world to conduct independent research on venomous snakes in Africa and South America. His travels would become fodder for conversation later in life, and those who spent time in the field with Martin were treated to storybook-style tales—escaping a Colombian prison by traveling on foot through the rainforest to Ecuador, escaping the epicenter of the first Ebola outbreak in the dead of night, witnessing the start of a civil war in Somalia, narrowly avoiding a deadly plane crash, bringing Australian TV host Steve Irwin to one of his Shenandoah den sites for an episode of “The Crocodile Hunter,” receiving his first and second rattlesnake bites—the list goes on.

While the spirit of adventure and his passion for all venomous snakes took Martin around the world, it was his hometown habitat that comprised the bulk of his life’s work and made him known throughout the herpetological community as a leading expert on Timber Rattlesnakes. “A human of mythic proportions,” writes Joe Villari, Preserve Manager at VOF’s Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve, in his touching personal tribute to Martin. “His love for snakes connected him with humanity, and he connected so many of us to the beauty and joy of rattle snakes.”

Martin continued to work independently, preferring his own strictly field-based research methods to a life in academia, and spent more than four decades visiting the same den sites over, and over, and over again. He learned to predict how weather patterns could influence snake behavior. He saw den sites diminish and ultimately disappear due to human disturbance. And he saw how climate change was altering even the most reliable den locations.

Much of Martin’s knowledge has been published; he contributed to rattlesnake conservation as a member of the Timber Rattlesnake task force for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature for 30 years, and in 2021, Martin co-authored the 475-page book, “The Timber Rattlesnake: Life History, Distribution, Status, and Conservation Action Plan,” with the Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. But he recorded his raw data the old-fashioned way—in decades of small, spiral-bound notebooks—and researchers will likely continue to learn from the late great herpetologist long into the future.

While he will certainly be remembered for his contributions to science, those who knew him will never forget the deep reverence he held for nature and the passion that drove his work. BRMC founder Andrea Currier recalls turning to Martin at an evening event on a beautiful hilltop in Front Royal and remarking, “Isn’t this pretty perfect?” Martin replied, “Actually, no,” and explained, “There are no rattlesnakes here!”

“Marty’s happiness was intrinsically tied to the presence and well-being of venomous snake populations,” explains Villari, “especially his beloved timbers.”


A celebration of Marty Martin’s life will be held at Morgan’s Grove Park in Shepherdstown, WV on September 25th at 1 PM. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Catoctin Land Trust (catoctinlandtrust.org) or the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy (brmconservancy.org).

This article first appeared in the September 2022 Issue.

Summer Foraging with Clay Morris

Story by Victoria Peace

In January 2022, I took one of Clay Morris’ winter foraging classes at the Salamander Resort & Spa. I came away from the experience amazed at how much the natural world had to offer during a time of year that I usually consider to be extremely barren. You can read the article I wrote about my experience and about Morris’ background here.

Six months later when I was invited to participate in one of Morris’ summer foraging classes, I jumped at the opportunity. I couldn’t wait to see what new and exciting foods and flavors came along with the changing of the seasons.

Morris starts each one of his foraging classes with a walk through the grounds of the Salamander Resort & Spa. He likes to teach his classes there because it’s a very diverse habitat in a small area. Morris explained that the months of June and July are what he calls “the vegetable stage” of the year. All of the plants that emerged in the spring have started producing flowers, berries, pods, and vegetables.

The Walk 

On our summer foraging walk, we discovered a wide variety of plants and trees including black locust, milkweed, chicory, wild grapes, wild berries, overcup, poke, walnut trees, sumac, coneflowers, cattails, juniper, and heirloom pear trees. Their qualities ranged from utilitarian to delicious  — and often, encompassed both the same time.

One plant that Morris identified as seamlessly blending utility and culinary value is overcup. Its large leaves curl in such a way that they create a cup which acts as a condenser for any mist in the air. When water collects in these cups, it provides a place for hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators to stay hydrated. Morris likes to blanch overcup leaves and use them to make a roulade, which he proudly calls “his version of sushi.”

Cattails are another plant Morris pointed out which serves a wide variety of functions. Native Americans used their fluff to stuff diapers and their leaves to make mats. However, the stem of the cattail can also be eaten —  it tastes similar to a cucumber. After our walk, we were able to sample both raw cattail stem and a cattail root and tomato relish that Morris prepared.

On our walk, Morris underscored the importance of being in tune with seasonal and environmental changes in order to know the right time to harvest different plants. Windows of opportunities can be small, and once you miss them, they’re gone. For example, every bit of the milkweed plant can be eaten if prepared properly. However, it has to be harvested within a very specific timeframe. When the plant first starts to emerge in the spring, the stems can be eaten like asparagus. Before it flowers, it looks a bit like broccoli rabe, and can be sautéed or dried and stored for later use. The pods can be blanched and taste similar to okra, however, you have to make sure you catch them when they are very small or else they are poisonous. And finally, when the flower opens, it can be made into a cordial for a refreshing summer drink.

The Tasting

After our walk, we had the chance to sample a milkweed flower cordial along with a variety of other dishes made with foraged ingredients. Morris prepares these dishes in advance so participants can better understand how the flavors and textures of foraged food can fit into our typical everyday diet. His goal is not just to make foraged food edible, but delicious.

The menu that I sampled included lots of picked items, which are traditional for both the season and the region we live in. There were pickled, spice keeper pears, pickled wild onion flowers, and pickled mini pine cones. The pickled mini pine cones were probably my favorite bite of the day because their flavor was unlike anything I had ever tasted before. It was simultaneously, tangy, minty, and spicy, with just a hint of sweetness.

For more savory offerings, Morris prepared fermented grape leaves filled with creole rice and a lambs quarters callaloo. The callaloo, a traditional Caribbean dish, was inspired by one of Chef Kwame Onwuachi’s recipes. Onwuachi will be hosting The Family Reunion at Salamander later this month. Lambs quarters is a fast-growing weed which can be used as a spinach substitute and has a significantly less slimy texture when cooked. 

As discussed previously, every part of the milkweed plant can be eaten at the right time of year. During our class, the pods were in season. Morris prepared them by lightly frying them in a tempura batter. They tasted similar to okra and had a fascinating texture — the inside was almost like mozzarella cheese. 

While the milkweed pods were a more adventurous snack, Morris also created a beautiful charcuterie spread so that guests could make their own canapés using mix of familiar and foreign ingredients. Garlic mustard pesto, cattail root relish, wild greens aioli, and fermented elderberry capers could all be paired with more typical meats and cheeses to create unique bites. “Play with it, there’s no wrong way to do it,” Morris encouraged.

I am already looking forward to seeing what Morris has in store for his fall classes — the focus will be on roots and nuts. To sign up, please visit Salamander Resort & Spa’s website. To be put on Morris’ mailing list, please reach out to jclaymorris@hotmail.com. ML

Monarchs & Milkweed: Oak Spring Garden Foundation

Written by Dulcy B. Hooper
Photos by Ashley Bommer Singh

Welcoming members of the local community to two “after dinner” lectures on monarchs and milkweed was Peter Crane, president of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation (OSGF) and a renowned botanical researcher and evolutionary plant scientist. The lectures took place in the Mill Reef Room at the Broodmare Barn at Oak Spring.

The four-day symposium was organized and spearheaded by Anurag Agrawal, a professor of environmental studies at Cornell University. OSGF sponsored the symposium and covered the travel costs and accommodations for scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Brazil. Also participating in the symposium were an artist, two science writers, and a milkweed horticulturist.

Top left: Monarch caterpillars on milkweed.

“We are talking about an exciting battle that unfolds every summer between monarchs and milkweeds,” said Agrawal, who recently authored a book on the very subject: “Monarchs and Milkweed.”

The host plants for monarch caterpillars are primarily milkweeds. As such, the group’s discussion focused on the decline and conservation of monarchs and the critical importance of milkweeds. “Milkweed produces toxins and works to defend itself. At the same time, monarchs constantly evolve to find their way around those toxins,” he continued. “They are antagonists, engaged in a defense/counter defense dance.”

Another speaker, William Wetzel of Michigan State University, spoke bluntly on the subject of climate change. “Heat waves are not fake news,” he said. “They are happening over and over, and will continue to happen. We need to reckon with them.” Even more concerning, according to Wetzel, are the “extreme climate events.”

“We are seeing higher highs and lower lows. Likewise, we are looking at extreme precipitation. This, also, is likely to have a tremendous impact on monarchs and milkweeds.”

Peter Crane. Photo by Richard Hooper.

Another of the evening’s speakers contributed a most interesting, non-scientific element to the discussion. Bobby Gendron, founder and owner of Butterfly Encounters, located in San Ramon, California, describes himself as “obsessed” about milkweed. In the third grade, Gendron began raising silkworms before moving on to swallowtails and monarchs.

Then, milkweed caught his attention. In the seventh grade, he contacted over 100 mail-order nurseries and found only limited quantities of a couple of milkweed species. By his senior year in high school, he had founded a business selling milkweed seeds. “There are over 100 species of milkweeds in North America,” Gendron said. “Planting native milkweed is the first step in creating a habitat for monarch butterflies, as milkweed is the host plant for their larvae.”

Presenters. Photo by Richard Hooper.

Butterfly Encounters is Gendron’s “hobby business,” as he describes it. “I get to do this in the evening,” he said, “when my daughter is asleep. It is a family business, and we love what we do.”

This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.

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