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THROUGH THE WOODS: Snakes are our friends

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Milk snake. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE POOR SNAKE has had bad press ever since the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They are fascinating to some and terrifying to others. One of our aunts was an avid gardener and was in the terrified group. We kids would laugh at her arms flapping, screaming fits every time she encountered one, and guessed that the snake was far more terrified than she.

The worst part was she insisted that my uncle kill every snake she found. Uncle was inclined to remove such creatures to safer parts of the farm. He certainly never told her he saved them. She could not be convinced that snakes were good for her garden and that they ate a good number of pests that ruined her favorite veggies. At age 10 a pet garter snake (encouraged by my mother) taught me that snakes are not “slimy” and usually don’t bite unless provoked.

Aloysius lived in a small, shaded cold frame with nice plants and water and was regularly taken out and allowed to lie in the sun or ride atop the head. He seemed to like to nestle down in hair and was quite well behaved. We were surprised to learn that garter snakes give birth to live young. Our rocky farm was a good place for them and we let Aloysius go in late summer so he could get ready for winter hibernation, probably in a rocky den with others of his species. He was arbitrarily called male because we didn’t know how to tell the sex.

The only poisonous snake we ever encountered was a beautiful copperhead that my mother found in the yard. We carefully observed it at a distance and let it go on its way. It taught caution and respect. Once, a friend of the family caught a rattlesnake near Bash Bish Falls in Copake. This was way back before they were protected and it was killed, skinned, cleaned, and the nice white meat saved. It wasn’t that big, so butter was melted in a frying pan and the whole body was added in. Snakes take a long time to stop moving after they are technically dead, and this one was no exception. This skinless piece of meat coiled up, and the headless neck and rattle-less tail twitched just like it had in life. It looked right at us as it was heaved out the back door. It would have been interesting to try if only we had waited until the next day. It was another of those delicacies that are supposed to taste just like chicken.

Admittedly snakes can startle one as they abruptly try to evade us, or rustle through the leaves. If we peer into a rock wall we may see their little heads peering back from the safety of the crevices. Later they may be draped over shrubs, shedding their skin, or lying beneath the shelter of a hosta plant. They vary in size, shape, markings, and color, and you can begin to recognize individuals. Respect them, name them and talk to them as friends, for that is truly what they are.

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