Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta

The black rat snake laid claim to Halcyon before we did.  We were unaware of this, of course, and bought the property “snake unseen.”  However, it is not possible to hide for long when your species is numerous and when individuals can reach 4-6 feet in length.  It is also not possible to hide for long when you like to enter homes in search (I hope) of mice.

Our first encounter occurred a few weeks after we arrived.  My daughter Mauri was outside on the rope swing, which was tied to an old, large black walnut tree.  I was inside painting the first of what would come to seem like an endless supply of painting jobs in our new home.  I heard her come in the front door and up the stairs.

“Mom?”

“Hmmm,” I replied.

“Can snakes climb trees?”

“I’m pretty sure that they can,” I replied, remembering the small snakes that climbed the shrubs outside our Houston home, and even one that tried to climb the dining room wall because I was trying to remove it with a broom and a Rubbermaid bin.

“Well, then there is a large black snake climbing the swing tree, way up high.”

She said this in a matter of fact manner with no apprehension in her voice.  I went out with her to see, but it must have been very high up by then because we could not find it.  I can’t remember if Mauri continued to swing that day, but she certainly was not afraid of swinging in the days and years after that snake-climbing incident.  I’m glad for that.

The next sighting of the snake I came to call Mama – because she is so large and because we see numerous smaller snakes every year – occurred a few months into our new home.  My in-laws were visiting and my father-in-law opened the kitchen door, but did not go out.  He closed it, and then announced that a 5 foot black snake just went around the corner and under the house.  Again, there was no apprehension in his voice or any real reaction from all of us inside the house.  We knew it was a black rat snake and that they are good to have around.

Black rat snake

Over the years we have collected their shed skins because they are beautiful.  Chris would often bring me one with the same munificence in which he might bring me daisies.  The skins adorn a windowsill or a shelf for a while.  Later, I compost them in a cleaning fit stemming from the notion that my house should stop looking like a nature center display and more like a home.  We have found skins in the yard, in the crawlspace, in the barn rafters, and even in the ceiling of the downstairs bathroom when we remodeled.

I used to take the skins to school to show my students and to display in my science center.  Every year when the subject of snakes was raised, either because of a science lesson or because I brought in my son’s pet corn snake, the students would become instantly engaged, much like they might if they’d just surprised a snake in the grass.  Through the chorus of voices expressing their love or hate of snakes, there would always be one story of how a student’s father had killed a snake.  Usually these were without knowing what kind of snake it was or whether it was any real threat.  I hated these moments.

It is natural to be afraid of snakes.  Perhaps there is even an evolutionary reason for our fear.  What I hated about those stories from school was that fact that I could not probably change someone’s fears by just direct teaching in the classroom.  Oh, don’t worry; the changes of a black rat snake biting you are very slim.  It is not venomous.  Actually, it is very helpful and farmers are usually quite happy to have them around to control rodents.  Somehow this message is lost on a squirmy group of fourth graders, stuck in their chairs, and getting a lot of their fears from TV, other media, and from some grownups.

He’s wary of me too.

I’m not fear-free when it comes to snakes.  It is not a bite I am worried about.  I learned from a talk at a Texas State Park that we’d need to be three days from a hospital to be in danger of dying from a venomous bite.  It is the part about being surprised.  When I come across one, I am startled, and then wary.  I leave them alone or shoe them away from the foundation.  And I’m not happy about the location of the most recent skin I found.

Our house is in varying states of repair and one such space not yet finished is a small passageway between our bedroom and the front of the house.  There is a tiny “cousin-it” closet and a hacked together roofline from when the front of the house was added on to the original slaves’ quarters.  At least Halcyon has history and charm, if not class!  In this space you can see the metal roof – the acoustics are awesome during a rainstorm – and NOW you can also see a snakeskin.  It’s just hanging there.  Did its owner contemplate slithering down the wall into the bedroom to check things out?  I am now thankful that the bedroom is cold, probably as cold as that ceiling area that needs repaired, and the snake shed its skin and left.

Black rat snakeskin

Or did he?  There is also a snakeskin hanging from the ceiling of the side porch (also in dire need of repair).  This ceiling is connected to the roofline of the passageway.   I’m guessing that he is living above that porch ceiling.  My point is that while I am not comfortable with the idea that a snake might slither across my bedroom floor, I would not have it killed or removed.

I appreciate our black rat snakes.  They help keep the mice down.  They have a role here at Halcyon.  By finding snakes over the years, and then stopping to watch them when I do encounter one, my fears have abated.  It helps that my son has a pet snake, a caramel corn snake named Blizzard.  I made myself hold Blizzard when he was little so that I would not be afraid of him later.  He is now almost 4 feet long, skinny still, but strong.  He is nice to hold.  I don’t recommend people go out and try to hold wild snakes, but I think more encounters might go a long way in helping mitigate our fears, rather than just having someone tell us that most snakes are harmless and we should not worry.

We are getting a woodstove insert at the end of the month, which means our bedroom will finally be warmer.  I think it is time to seal up that passageway ceiling before the snake decides he’d like some toastier quarters for the winter.

 AFTERWARD

I drafted this post on Wednesday, and that evening I was enjoying a chat with friends in my knitting group when the conversation turned, quite serendipitously, to snakes.  One woman told how there was a small black snake living in her crawlspace.  She said she used to let her cats go down there to get mice, but now she won’t let them because she is afraid her cats might hurt the snake.  I had to clarify that she didn’t mean she was worried the snake would hurt her cats.  Nope, I heard her correctly.

Another woman told of holding her brother’s python when she was a teenager, and then more recently of regularly rescuing garter snakes from her cats.  One time she even picked up a whole squirmy pile of garter snakes she found in her garage, some in each hand, and marched them down to the woods to release them.

These stories warm my heart.

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