Monday, March 19, 2007

The Serpents of Paradise

Ahh, yes, the country, I thought when I saw the garter snake sunning itself against the foundation. The most regular snake in the world, Thamnophis sirtalis, both wild and captive examples familiar from my childhood. Regardless, I knew it had to go.

The otherwise very brave woman with whom I share my abode has a cowardice around snakes that is nearly unmatched in the annals of chickenhood. To be fair, she still bears the scar of a youthful encounter with Crotalus horridus, an eastern timber rattler. Not that the snake did anything, but in her panicked flight she tripped over a boulder and gashed her knee on another rock. Then got up and threw stones at the snake.

In addition, we were eating buyer’s remorse for breakfast, lunch and dinner during those summer weeks after moving in. On top of the Sump Pump Issue, the Baseboard Debacle, the Questionably Leaning Mudroom and the Dinky Proportions Conundrum, the last thing I thought the house needed was an Unwelcome Species Situation.

Thus, having a snake of any kind on the premises, even a beneficial garden-friendly and pest-reducing garter snake, was right out. Besides, I wanted to show it to the boy. I snuck up on the specimen, made a clumsy grab, missed, and watched as it slithered directly upward into the siding.

That was an interesting wrinkle.

Perhaps because of perversity, but also with some underlying idea of taking on the Snake Admiration Deficit that pervaded our household, I told my wife a few days later that I’d seen one. And where it went. She was predictably unhappy. My na├»ve hope for primate-reptile reconciliation was dashed when she ordered its removal. So the next time I saw it, I made a more strategic and faster move, and had the snake.

The capture and release program I’d devised was based on repeat viewings of Mutual of Omaha’s pet project, so after some dramatic posturing and a recreation of the event for the lad, I carried the snake a couple of yards over, to a stone wall next to a small pond, and let it go. It immediately took shelter among the rocks.

And that was that.

Until a couple days later, when I spotted another snake in the same spot. This one was clearly not the one I had captured previously. It was smaller, and proved easier to catch. I brought this one down to the snake release center and didn’t mention it.

Not long afterwards, I opened the Bilco doors to enter the cellar and surprised two garter snakes lolling in the superheated oven beneath the doors. I grabbed one – the other slipped between two foundation stones. There were shed skins lying around like the remains of a particularly debauched Snake Party.

C’mon, what was I supposed to do, NOT tell her? How do you not tell someone about all these snakes? And whom could I tell but my trusted mate, my helpmeet, my advisor and confidante, my best friend?

She took it well, if by well you mean that she started calling different hotels to see what kind of non-anapsid specials they were running that week. I got on the horn with a couple of herpetologists to see how many there were likely to be and if they had a homing instinct. The lizard people were about as sympathetic as the smokies had been about the bear. “They’re great!” they told me (which I knew). “Keep ’em!” (I knew, I knew, but they didn’t understand, this woman has a snake scar.)

I converted a bucket into a snake conveyor, adapted a long-handled paint roller and a pair of gloves into the Acquisition Apparatus (I was sick of getting pissed on by every nervous snake in the county) and haunted the backyard, flipping open the doors at random intervals, getting under any snakes with the roller, flipping them out into the yard (I had weeded out the slower ones and now those I found would almost make a whiplike crack as they vanished into their holes) and scooping them into the bucket.

Worst of all, I wasn’t sure whether I was catching the same ones repeatedly. I started venturing further afield in search of the right habitat for release – it had to be as good as my cellar. (We also had these tiny black crickets, order Orthoptera, that lived around the foundation. Inky black little guys. They never bothered anyone. Least of all the snakes, for whom they were doubtless like chicken wings to a fratboy.) If you’re a snake looking for someplace with sheltered stony crevices, a ready supply of insects and occasional running water, our cellar comes up as the first result on Snoogle. The last two I caught I released at a farm ten miles away.

Total snakes: nine (possibly including repeats).

That seemed to do it; we haven’t seen any since. But last fall, after the snakes were gone, we started to see these large black crickets. Big, inky black, startlingly spidery. At night a couple of times, a rogue bull would enter the house, set up someplace undetectable and start singing. So we’d creep around late at night trying to pinpoint its location, and when we’d get close it’d shush. The crickets’ own version of Marco Polo.

And who doesn’t like Marco Polo?

PS: Were you looking for Edward Abbey? Here.


Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if you've developed a catch-and-release program for mice. These old canal houses in Holland have a problem that my hunting dog can't cure. I also have a husband who thinks I'm severely phobic and refues to set out the trap line like a courier du bois. My sympathies are with Mrs. Braine on this one.

Bill Braine said...

You know what eats mice? Snakes.

Shipment en route.

Amy Plum said...

Hudson must think you're Superman.

Bill Braine said...

...then I'm wasting my time with these glasses, dammit.