Snakes in the Yard

It’s been over a year since I wrote about snakes, but I think it’s time. SNAKES ON A PLANE has brought my reptile friends into the spotlight, and once again they’re getting a bad rap.
I have enjoyed encounters with snakes for three decades now and still mark my years by the first snake I see in the spring. The year 2006 it was a Northern Brown Snake out in the yard, a slug, earthworm, and insect eater only 10 inches long. It turned up in some wood I was moving. I picked it up, admired it, and then placed it back under the log.

In 2005 my first snake sighting was more dramatic. On a warm day in March we were driving down Starline Drive and slowed to watch a young copperhead crossing the road. The snake had recently shed and was brightly patterned. I commented on how beautiful it was with its new skin, but Betsy reminded me the neighbors might not think so.

I grew to admire snakes in college. Though an English major and no scientist, I worked first at identifying snakes, and then to understand their ways a little better. I read Roger Conant’s A FIELD GUIDE TO REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS OF EASTERN AND CENTRAL NORTH AMERICA like a sacred text. I studied the range maps in the back. I kept live snakes as pets in aquariums, and I stopped to identify dead ones on the road. When I visited museums, I zipped past the monkey house and headed straight for the reptiles.

“So what was it exactly about snakes?” I’m sure you’re asking right now if you are one of the majority of readers who fear them intensely. Well, I’ve reflected a great deal about that, and what I’ve come up with is this: It was peer pressure. I learned to admire snakes because a close friend did. Once I got to know them snakes offered a door for me into the natural world I’d been waiting to open.

Snakes are good teachers. They offer us a way of understanding the ancient workings of a landscape, something I began getting interested in during college. As a class among the vertebrates (backboned animals), these creatures have a history millions and millions of years longer than our own. They’ve crawled onward through eons, adapted to conditions and survived in spite of asteroids, volcanoes, and suburbs. What is there not to admire and learn from?

And learning about them helped me quickly to put a few snake myths to rest as well-snakes are not slimy; they are to be respected, but snakes are not aggressive, though they will try to escape when cornered; there are no poisonous water snakes in the upper piedmont of South Carolina in spite of all those stories about unlucky water skiers falling into “nests” of “moccasins.” If you don’t believe this last one, just get a field guide and look at the range map for cottonmouths and notice how it ends in Columbia!

Back in college on late spring nights rather than party I’d ride with my biologist friend David Scott up on Highway 11 at sundown looking for snakes crossing the road. We had this wild idea back them we’d get photographs of every sort of snake in the Southeast. After a year I gave it up and sold my camera. David is still at it. For twenty years he’s worked as a research ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab and his photos of reptiles and amphibians appear in books and magazines all over the world.

During our time cruising for snakes we saw a great many. Some were dead, unidentifiable splats of scales hit by speeding trucks and cars, but many were alive. I remember we saw black rat snakes, milk snakes, corn snakes, black racers, copperheads. We saw snakes of every color and length available to this landscape. It was better than a museum because there weren’t any little signs telling you want you were seeing. You had to figure it out yourself.

If we saw a snake we’d stop, catch it, and haul it back to Wofford in a pillow case to photograph in the courtyard of the dorm. David went to great trouble to get shots of snakes in natural settings, and he preferred to take his photos early in the morning when the air was cool and the snakes were lethargic and easy to pose. He’d twist them around a branch and they’d stay for a moment.

When we finished we’d slip them back into the pillowcase and take them into the dorm (breaking all the housing rules) until the next time we headed up the highway to let our quarry go near where they were caught.

I remember one night we saw a timber rattlesnake that had been hit by the car in front of us. We picked up the corpse, skinned it on the roadside, and brought back the skin with rattles attached. We kept that skin in our dorm room like a prize.

I’ll have to admit SNAKES ON A PLANE is a pretty good premise for a film-take at least two of people’s greatest fears (flying and snakes) and put them together-but I’m not planning on seeing it. I’m happy with the private film running always in my head-SNAKES IN THE YARD. It’s always showing in a landscape near me.

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