Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Snake from Hell

June was also the month of the garter snake. Operationally the only serpents on the Green Side (the rubber boa being shy, crepuscular, and highly local), they abound here in three species. All are normally courteous, unless pregnant, with a reserved elegance and a merchant's eye that inspire trust.

Indeed, if these remarkable reptiles weren't so common, and perhaps if they were poisonous, people would make movies about them. They subsist on an astonishing variety of prey, amounting to anything they can push past their unhinged jaws, and glide with bored aplomb into virtually any habitat. I have encountered garter snakes on the tidelands of Puget Sound; sunning on lily pads mid-lake; stalking crayfish beneath a river; and trolling for slugs along the dunes on the beach. Their young they bear live, tiny capable copies of their parents, and so they can "nest" anywhere.

In short, Thamnophis is the snake from Hell. I loved the first one I saw, and each one since a little more.

As the days warmed and the hills dried out, the Acres' polymorphous garter snake population awoke in their hundreds, a full spectrum of them, basking on rocks and paths and molehills, powering up after the long winter.

Through the summer I would come to know many of their themes by sight: matt-black all over, like limber fan belts; broad blue lines seemingly chalked down the back; stripes of cherry, tomato, olive, and persimmon; bronze and gold freckled. They shared chunks of concrete by the stable, intertwined by threes and fours on molehills in the long grass, and, after Jim mowed, lurked under the windrows in the open field, where they could soak up the heat unseen by ravens.

On 11 June I picked one up while crossing the low meadow. She'd just given birth; deep folds of skin down both flanks. The next day I encountered her again, in company with another one identical to her, but just three inches long.

In all, my ango log contains thirty-three snake entries, detailing colours and configurations, shapes, sizes, and temperaments. One August entry mentions eight scared up just on the walk from the barn to camp; another simply notes, "Saw 15 snakes today." I sometimes caught one to admire its coloration, but mostly walked well around to avoid disturbing them, if I knew they were there.

Once I was meditating in the barn when a three-stripe came under the wall. I remained still, and he continued across the floor at cruising speed, grazing my sandaled toe on his way to some appointment.

His tongue must have told him I was there. He just didn't care.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson.)
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