Four species of snakes call our yard home. This one, the Eastern ratsnake, is the best climber and grows longer than garter or ring-necked snakes or the venomous copperhead. A six-foot ratsnake called George used to live in the woodshed owned an old lady next door. In one of our dry summers an itinerant garden worker knocked on her door asking for work. She wanted her parched lawn to be watered.
“Y’all find the hose in the shed,” Elspeth told him.
Next thing we heard the man screaming, and then watched him emerge from the shed and shake violently before running down the driveway. We never saw him again.
Few people like snakes. Too few. The first impulse is to kill them and the second to summon their name when you need the most excoriating epithet. We curse with the names of all sorts of animals, but snake is reserved for the most despised and untrustworthy individuals, the lowest of the low. Don’t even check the Urban Dictionary for the meaning of ‘snakehole’.
The hole in our birdbox probably looked as homely to our snake as Bag End to Bilbo Baggins with its round, green door and brass knob—a cozy haven in an uncertain world. The snake may have found a clutch of blue eggs neatly laid out for supper in a twiggy nest, but I think it had been squatting there a long time. Either way, we leave it alone. It doesn’t bother us, although our species has been on bad terms with theirs for a long time.
“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” King James Bible.
In the Jungle Book, Kaa (the snake) was one of the bad guys, although understandably grumpy when he was hit by Bagheera (the panther). He hissed:
“Ooh, my s-s-sinus. You have just made a s-s-serious mistake. And very s-s-stupid.”
Snakes prefer to avoid confrontation and are not aggressive by nature. In a court of law, they would not be condemned for defending themselves because most bites occur from our blunders—like poking or stepping on one, or testing fate in a snake-handling church. Over seven thousand snake bites from venomous species are reported in North America annually, of which only five or six become fatal. In Australia, home to the most venomous snakes, there are even fewer fatalities per head of population, but thousands of people die in India every year because medical care is insufficiently prompt or effective. We don’t have to exterminate snakes to save people from snakebites.
The only good snake is a live snake. A dead snake can no longer contribute to the good of the land as a slice of the food pyramid that dine on the lower orders while in turn being on the menu for top predators. They are friends to farmers and gardeners as ravenous predators of rodents that raid our crops and grain stores and which transmit Lyme disease, hantavirus, and plague in their fleas, ticks, and waste products. And for people with heart disease the venom of a rattlesnake has been used to engineer an antiplatelet drug (Eptifibatide).
We shouldn’t justify preserving snakes only when they help to satisfy our own needs. As wonders of nature, beautiful and mysterious, they deserve respect. But the sight of a snake more often triggers a tide of revulsion within us and the impulse to kill, as it did one hot day when a snake slither close to D.H. Lawrence who lay resting by a water trough.
And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned…
Then Lawrence threw a log at it… But as the creature disappeared his heart started warming to it, and he realized he was enjoying its company.
… immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords of life.
And I have something to expiate: A pettiness.
Next Post: Beehive Split