When Tender Snakes Save the Day

by Jack Phillips

Naturalists are by nature an optimistic lot because we have learned to find beauty in unexpected places, that nature is resilient, that wildness is all around us as well as within, and that humans are hard-wired for curiosity. That is why so much nature writing tends toward exaggerated sweetness and if we’re not careful, toward painting pretty pictures that leave out murky colors. When our workshop leader asked us to write about an adverse or troubling experience in nature I resisted, but not for a lack of these experiences but for simply not wanting to think about them. But writing helps us look at nature honestly and at ourselves in nature as well.

The memory I conjured made me queasy. On a hot summer day, the woods I had known since childhood stank of rotting corpses. The rough road to the cabin was a narrow track through a shanty town of cobbled-together weekend getaways largely made of salvaged materials and home-made dreams, none fancy but generally tidy and painted. The riparian woods canopied this little neighborhood. Maples, mulberries, walnuts, dogwood, basswood, box-elder, and cottonwoods lined the road and the river. But lately, these woods had become a foul gallery of catfish heads and whole bodies of every manner of fish and game nailed to tree trunks or displayed on fallen logs, the handywork of a killer and collector of death we called The Poacher. He probably ate some of his illegal prey, but no freezer in the county could have held the mounting massacre.

My aunt and uncle’s cabin, also shared by their descendants that grew in number throughout a lifetime, and also by wanderers and an ever-expanding circle of friends, sat on a few concrete blocks frugally arranged on the soft and shrinking bank of an unruly river. The hospitality of my kin has sometimes seemed excessive. Especially in the case of The Poacher. My uncle, a lover and defender of all things wild and also a delicate harvester of wild fare, showed him a measure of kindness far beyond my tolerance. But that was his way. He showed The Poacher at least as much tolerance as he afforded the wasps with whom he shared his toolshed.

The Poacher appeared on that hot and humid afternoon distressed and in need of one more never-ending favor. Apparently there was at least one creature the fearless slayer of toads and rabbits and catfish and deer was afraid to approach near enough to murder: a snake caught on a hook. He had pronounced it venomous. He needed a long-handled implement with which to dispatch it, with great bravery, as it writhed on one of his scores of set-lines he had deployed across shallow channels shore to shore. Or a volunteer.

I politely choked back my disdain and asked him to show me. My young son wanted to come along and I reluctantly consented. But The Poacher declined to climb down the bank to the water and instead described where he had dragged up the gigantic monster. I was surprised to find it easily, but was not surprised to find a completely harmless eight inch-long northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) in a tangle. Alive they are harmless, even more so dead. The limp snakeling was attached to length of twine by a deep hook that had grossly stretched its jaws. Snakes have the ability to  swallow prey much larger than their heads, but in this case the talent proved deadly. The bait, a waterlogged toad threaded like a charm, hung to the side.  There was nothing to do except deprive The Poacher of another corpse. We cut the snakeling loose and gave it to the river.  

The experience confirmed for me, once again, that humans need to learn or relearn how to encounter nature with respect and reverence. The Poacher was but an extreme example of the human impulse to collect, master, own, and exploit the natural world. Even among my friends this impulse is obvious when a herpetologist keeps a snake for a pet, a forager collects every mushroom in reach, or an herbalist sees not plants, but product. There are those who practice responsible killing and taking, but far too often those impulses reveal an attitude of entitlement to the natural world that has proven to be corrosive and depleting.

My uncle, true to his perpetual belief in humanity, thought that I was too critical. He believed that The Poacher wanted to live close to nature but just didn’t know how. He may have been right, but I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough nature left for the rest of us. We later learned that he was hiding out in an empty cabin; he was arrested soon after not for crimes against nature, but for other tresspasses and atrocities.

Emerson wrote: “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature.” That day on the river proved him true. I should not be surprised when I am healed by children, and my gratitude increases every time. On the way back to the cabin my tender son counted turtle tracks, hunted for bison bones and arrowheads, lost and retrieved shoes in sticky muck, caught and released little toads, and tried to skip the rare stone we happened upon. Barefoot on hot sand and cool mud, we wandered sandbars and mudflats and happened upon a wee water snake with an attitude.

By the age of six my son was a river rat in his own right. He tried to grab it. The feisty little snake,  just a few hours old and roughly my son’s age in snake years, bit his finger and immediately drew blood. With no hesitation whatsoever and before I could react, he deftly grabbed it with the other hand. He didn’t complain about his injury or the blood dripping from his finger, but it took a few minutes for my parental panic to subside.

Though not venomous, the northern water snake is a cranky species right out of the womb. (Nerodia sipedon is viviparous, bearing live young.) But their saliva, like that of many snakes, contains an anticoagulant that bleeds and weakens prey. But not so little boys. My son fondly admired the fresh and shiny serpent, in his hands more squirmy than angry, the innocent kin of the one we could not save.

Jack Phillips is a naturalist, nature writer, and Principal of The Naturalist School: Ecology and Creativity for Conservation.

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