Kate M Carey writes about people and the crazy and chaotic, painful and prideful, wild and wonderful things they do for love. She is married to an Episcopal priest, has children living in Ohio and Florida. Carey lives in Lexington, North Carolina, and prays every night that the owl in her neighborhood eats the snakes in her backyard.
© Kate M. Carey
Let me tell you a few stories about snakes. But first, I must admit that I have a hate-hate relationship with snakes. In some mythologies, they represent the circle of life. To me, they represent fear.
All my biologist friends have lectured me about the good ones. Black rat snakes who keep the mice population in check in my family’s barn. Cute little garter snakes that slither across the front steps to grab up a few crickets. Brown snakes that keep slugs off my begonias. The fantasy fiction fans may be worse with their Harry Potter parseltongue serpent language mouths spouting how great and powerful snakes are. Yeah, yeah, I have heard it all.
This week I went to water some flowers and there it was, calmly sunning itself lying half in and half out of the shade made by my hydrangea bush. I posted a picture and a not-so-loving comment on Facebook and all the biologists and snake lovers starting posting their lies. “He is a good snake.” “He keeps the rat population down.” “Don’t be afraid.”
Like snakes haven’t scared the hell out of me for years.
To be clear, if your snake is in a cage. That’s fine. Behind the glass at the zoo. Again, fine. But sneaking up on me slithering through my flowerbed. Not fine. Appearing out of nowhere as I take a walk. No! Taunting me as I try to cross the boardwalk to the beach. NO! Snakes need to keep to theirs and I will keep to mine.
Like many things in my life, I am sure my hatred of snakes rests in my childhood. I grew up on 88 acres in the Midwest. Snakes were a part of rural life. They were always around and my parents made sure to teach me the difference between the good ones (black, garter, brown) and the bad ones (copperheads!). Oh, by the way, that’s not a typo. We called those cute little ones garden snakes, but look it up, in snake classifications, they are garter snakes, scientific name Thamnophis sirtalis. A mighty pompous name for such a small, insignificant snake!
On afternoon at the end of the lane where we just got off the school bus, my brother picked up a small snake that looked like a viper. The snake bit him. Why did he pick up a snake that looked like a viper? Because all the boys on the bus were watching him, he says. I guess I will never understand that alpha thing with males.
My parents didn’t know this snake, so they packed up my brother and me (and the snake) for a drive into town to the doctor. Turns out the snake was a faker. See, some snakes when threatened mimic their venomous cousins by flattening their heads and striking when they feel threatened, just as this guy did to my brother. Turns out, it was probably a little grass snake (Natrix natrix).
That faker snake was just like the snakes in our farm pond that were more scared of us than we of them, as the adage goes, but I just knew they would swim down my bikini bottoms. I refused to swim if I saw a snake in the pond. Even as an ill-informed teenager, I favored an out-of-sight-out-of-mind philosophy about snakes.
All farm kids know that black snakes’ skins shed in the hay loft were evidence that they were doing their job eating rats and mice. But seriously, compare them - a fuzzy, cute, tiny grey mouse with a slimy, ugly, 6-foot-long snake. Think Stuart Little, Templeton in Charlotte’s Web, the Dormouse in Alice, even the beloved Mickey Mouse (though he’s a bit creepy with those big white hands!). Girls go for the fuzzy animal over the leathery one anytime. Watch the midway at the county fair, if you don’t believe me. We’ll choose the black panther Bagheera every time over the psychotic snake Kaa.
After college, I worked as a pest scout for the Cooperative Extension Service in my home county. My job was to identify insect pests in farmers’ fields and provide information on infestations so the farmer knew when to use a pesticide. Before exercise trackers counted them, I walked thousands of steps in corn, soybeans, and alfalfa those summers. But the step I remember the most is the one I did not take while walking through a pollinating cornfield one August. I happened to look down and see a giant black snake, at least 8-feet-long, slithering across my path. I stepped back carefully and crossed over about five rows of corn doing that little run-skip-walk people do crossing a street when a car is coming too close. Inside my car, I locked the doors, and left, forgetting to leave the reports for the farmer to see the results of my pest survey. I am sure he was more worried about alfalfa weevils (Hypera postica) than black snakes.
Moving to North Carolina last year, people said watch out for snakes. People also said choose a football team (Duke, UNC, State), eat only western BBQ, and never leave home without putting on a bit of lipstick and mascara. Living in Columbus, Ohio, I had only seen one small snake in the nearly 30 years I was there. City living was great living if you wanted to avoid snakes. Now, maybe the North Carolina snake advice was right. In nine months here, I’ve seen five snakes – two in my own back yard!
The first snake showed up on a sunny winter day at our new house. Neighbors said he was just there to say hello, but I used a four-letter version of hello when I saw him. He/she was just a foot long and a baby, but you know, where there’s a baby, a momma ain’t far behind.
I was crossing the boardwalk to the beach a few months later and caught sight of a large slither of brown out of the corner of my eye as I stepped on the decking. It moved so fast, I didn’t see that distinctive pattern of a Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), but all summer I called out as I reached the decking, “Snaky snake, I am crossing here. No need to show yourself.” My husband thinks I am crazy.
I think it was the black snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) in the hydrangea that raised my hackles. Just back from a walk around the neighborhood, I wanted to plant a few herbs. I gathered the watering can and plants then, BAM, that snake disrupted my day. Though, thinking back, that snake prompted this story which can only mean ‘the devil made me do it.”
Not to go all scriptural, but Satan appears as a snake multiple times in the Bible (Genesis, Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah) including this favorite:
The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray…
Revelation 12:9New International Version (NIV)
Evidence that snakes are evil!
I grew up hearing sermons by fire and brimstone pastors, though I never saw a real snake handler. Our Methodist church wasn’t that kind of church. Singer-Songwriter Kate Campbell’s song, “Signs Following” is scary enough for me,” Reach down. Pick Up. Have faith. Live Right. If you believe…the snake will not bite.” Guess I just don’t have that much faith.
Snakes appear in all kinds of mythology – African, Greek, Hindu, Nordic. I like the image of Ouroboros, the snake that appears to be eating its own tail. It representing infinity, the circle of life to death, or good-evil. I think my fear of snakes is primordial, or at least archetypal. Snake – bad. Kitten- good. Of course, given that both cats and snakes are predators, maybe instead of Alien vs. Predator or Superman vs. Batman, Hollywood will create a movie called Civil War: Cat vs Snake. The anti-cat people (aka birders) will tell you that cats kill more birds in a year than snakes eat rodents. The Internet suggests that cats kill more than 2 billion birds in a year. But seriously, a soft, warm kitty versus a scaly, cold snake. No contest!
As this past year moved on from late winter to full summer, snake stories came to me like overdue bills providing surprise and dread. My friend in Greensboro posted on Facebook that her husband killed a copperhead in their downstairs bathroom…IN THE BATHROOM! Imagine where that snake could have gone.
My brother in Ohio found a harmless rat snake IN HIS BEDROOM. Does anyone want a snake of any kind as very strange bedfellow?
You can talk about today’s problems -- global warming, trade agreements, hate speech, job insecurity -- but these snake sightings are truly frightening. They may be warning us of coming doom, or maybe they are just evidence of civil discourse gone bad.
Real or imagined, friend or foe, snakes are a part of my Southern life. I understand the legend of Ouroboros represents the duality of life and death and I like the yin-yang of that. I truly do appreciate that some snakes are benign and do good works with rodents and insects. But, I also I understand the biology of survival of the fittest, and tomorrow, I’m getting a mongoose to patrol my back yard!
© Kate M. Carey