I have a fab pest control officer patrolling my property. And I don’t pay him a salary.
If anything about snakes gives you the heebeegeebees, read no farther. I will understand. Ophidiophobia — that’s the abnormal fear of snakes — is listed among the top dozen human phobias.
But if you are as fascinated as I am by creatures, both big and small, with whom we share Mother Earth, join me in a bit of story-telling.
Several days ago...
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I stand beside the raised deck, removing accumulated leaves from atop the creeping jenny, an aptly named ground cover overdue a breath of spring air. I use bunches of bags of compost to nourish the new plant growth, tossing each empty sack into a pile a few feet away.
The stack is getting impressive as I work my way down the side of the deck. Time to move the bags out of the way.
Huh? When did that limb fall across the pile of white sacks?
As I bend down to gather the bags, I get a closer look at the stick. It is too perfectly round and too perfectly textured.
I use an exclamation point not because I am afraid but because I am startled. That stomach-churning human instinct warns me to be wary until I can answer: Friend or foe?
ID, ID, ID is the key
This snake’s nose is rounded. Whew! Not venomous. Having had other close encounters with black rat snakes, I quickly identify this as one. Another whew!
“Oh, hi,” says I with all sincerity.
“You must be the reason I am not losing young plants and getting those horrid tunnels from the voles and moles that destructively take over this yard every spring. Is that why you are so big? You have plenty to eat?”
Mr. Snake stares at this talking human. He makes no attempt to move, so I return to tending the creeping jenny but soon realize I’m distracted and a wee bit nervous.
“OK, I’m not afraid of you and you obviously aren’t afraid of me,” says I, “but I don’t want you this close. Go away!”
Hid black midsection remains draped across the white bags, unmoved by my command. I reach for one of my gardening tools propped against an oak and poke at him. Nada. He might as well be a stick.
“Go away,” I poke again. Then I remember the nest of fledgling wrens in a stack of discarded pots at the other side of the house. Those birds would be too quick a meal for him, so I change my strategy.
“OK, you can’t go that way,” I instruct Mr. Snake. “Head to the woods.” I point in the opposite direction of the bird nest.
He starts moving. Yeaaaa!
And he moves. And he moves. To my shock, all 4-1/2-feet of him.
“Oh,” says I. “You are much bigger than I thought. Into the woods, please.”
Does he listen? Of course not.
Yes, snakes can climb!
Remember that oak tree I use for a garden tool rest. It is just a few feet away. I watch as he begins his ascent up the tree. I’ve heard black rat snakes can climb trees, but I’ve never witnessed such a feat. Surely his weight could not sustain the climb. First, he uses the tips of the garden tool handles as steps. “How clever,” think I, “but then what will you do after you run out of steps?”
This footless, handless creature is so adept at climbing that he does not fall. Nor does he wrap his body around the thick trunk. He glides upward, apparently using chunks of bark to keep from sliding.
I run into the house, get my binoculars and sit in a chair on the deck. At about 40 feet, Mr. Snake finds a hole in the trunk and sticks in his head. He’s not licking his chops when he comes out, so no meal there. He rests on a limb a bit, then heads upward again.
By the time he is at 50 feet, a crick in my neck from looking straight up too long aches. Leaves also begin to obscure the view. So I put down the binoculars and return to tending the garden.
But not before I yell up into the tree, “Don’t you dare fall on top of me!”
I am proud of myself for not letting fear enter this benign situation.
Yes, I’ve had my share of scary snake stories, like the time I was camping by a river in India. When I opened the tent flap in the morning, a cobra skin swung in the breeze. The venomous Asian snake had used a limb in front of the tent to shed its skin that night. Gulp.
I’ll take the harmless North American black rat snake any day.
Note from the Chronicler
If there is a lesson to today’s story, it is simply this: Learn your snakes. In Mississippi, there are about 55 different kinds of snake and six of those are venomous. In Virginia, where today’s story happens to take place, there are about 34 kinds of snake and three are venomous. The black rat snake is common in both states that I happily call home.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.