Toss the Garter aka Snake Handlers


“But, I saved you,” cried that woman,
“And you’ve bitten me, but why?
You know your bite is poisonous,
And now I’m gonna die.”
“Aw, shut up, silly woman,”
Said that reptile, with a grin.
“You knew damn well I was a snake,
Before you brought me in.” Al Wilson from his song “The Snake”

Dam Fish

My solitary foray into nature resulted in an unexpected, lengthy, and intelligent  exchange despite its:

a) unlikely source: A couple of 12-year-old guys I’d never met before

b) unlikely topic:  snakes.

I’ve been afraid of snakes since before I knew who Adam and Eve were. Not terrified like my sister, just creeped out, especially if I come upon one unexpectedly. But, good things happen when I traipse through Middleton looking for water pictures to add to my potential entries to the Middleton Stream Team photo contest, and this was the sanest, most adult conversation of differing viewpoints that I’ve experienced since Obama took office.

Dead Garter

Alison’s Adventure in Middleton’s Snake-filled Wonderland began at Secret Photo Spot #1 – the dam. I’d captured some interesting “through water” shots of myriad fish and fish silhouettes that might offer promise, then seeing nothing else of photographic interest I followed my nose deeper into the woods because something smelled lovely and familiar – wild lily-of-the-valley.  I sniffed to my heart’s content then headed back to the car for Secret Photo Spot #2. Along the way I thought I found some discarded plastic bait. It was in fact a dead baby snake upside down on the grass.  And rather than shrieking, flailing, and running pell mell into the underbrush as my first inclination may have been, I, uncharacteristically, stopped to take its picture.

Secret Spot #2, along a Rails To Trails path, gave me a chance to witness a couple of baby beavers, toying with me and each other, hiding among the reeds, drowned and downed trees, other swamp creatures, and then gliding out for a better peek that was never long enough for a photograph. Now I know what qualities great nature photographers have that I lack – extreme patience and faster shooting cameras. Fun, but not fruitful. Time to move on to Secret Photo Spot #3.

It seems Secret Photo Spot #3 is not so secret after all.  On the ponds edge, I encountered two young men both 12, who asked me what I was doing and expressed interest when I told them about the Middleton Stream Team photo contest where my husband, daughter and I had received consecutive prizes/acknowledgements over the last five years. Smart kids, they asked about prizes before committing to entering. “Cash for adults, cool prizes for kids under 16.”  Skeptical about why we would rank up there so many times, they asked if a lot of people entered, and whether I would actually invite a lot of adults to enter, or would I increase my chances by keeping it quiet. Said I’d invite adults, but would always have a nagging feeling that this person would be the one to beat me out. True to my word, here’s the link.  Photos due in October.   http://www.middletonstreamteam.org/

Eye contact was surprisingly good for pre-teens, though they’d occasionally scan the water’s surface.  Finally the taller guy said, “that’s why I’m here.”  And I followed his gaze and saw nothing.

“Where? What are you talking about?”

He said “Snake. Swimming in the water”

His focus was intense while I scrambled for my camera and admitted to the other young man, that I am not really a snake person but would attempt to be open-minded in memory of Tasha Tudor, especially her garden descriptions in “The Private World of Tasha Tudor”.

“What does he do with the snakes once he finds them?”

“He catches them and lets them go.”

Racer

He edged closer to the fallen log, and I saw the snake.  And this young man very graciously stopped his pursuit to let me photograph the snake as it emerged from the water to rest on the log. That pause lost him the snake.

Snakes always look poisonous to me, especially if they have color other than the black with yellow stripe of a garter, so I asked what it was, and he said racer.  I said “I thought they were big thick black things” (I always try to learn about the stuff that scares the crap out of me.) He seemed mildly impressed that I knew they were black, but said “this is a young one.” I told them both that if the shot was any good, I might enter it in the contest, though I have concerns. Could anyone win with a photo of a snake?  I mean I can barely stand looking at them, what if the judges are more repulsed than I am?

Then I asked if he could identify the dead snake I’d photographed earlier. It was hard with only its pale blue underbelly showing but one twist in the body showed a trace of yellow in this pencil-sized creepola, and he knew it was a garter.

So the snake whisperer  and I continued chatting, and it was evident that he just loves snakes, and he’s serious about knowing everything about them.  His friend, on the other hand, was more or less just along for the ride and never rushed in to come nose to nose with the reptiles. Snake whisperer backs up his interest with knowledge – he volunteers for a snake breeder in NH and has several snakes at home including a 9’ pet. And thus began the touchy subject.

“What do you feed them?”

His big snake will ultimately eat rabbits but right now it eats guinea pigs. My heart did the broken elevator plummet. I liked these polite, smart and interested boys, but I am also a loving guinea pig foster and a rabbit companion/slave. So I acknowledged my hypocrisy; I eat meat but could never conceive of killing my own, and then asked why he felt the life of the guinea pig is worth less than the life of the snake.

“They’re just rodents and, snakes, well snakes are more interesting.”

“But they’re not, guinea pigs are warm, furry, and so likeable.” I asked if he’d ever played with guinea pigs. Did he know they communicate, make friendships, and chatter. He asked a lot about their personalities and how I foster them and what happens to them after I give them back to the shelter.

I asked where he gets his guinea pigs, and he said he gets them free for volunteering at the breeder. They come frozen in packages, or he probably would have a difficult time feeding them.

As much as I liked these boys, if I’d heard they bought them at shelters or pet shops, I would have ratted them out in an instant; I’d taken a photo of him. Those animals are all friends of mine regardless of whether we’ve met, and the intention is to reunite these animals as pets with caring owners, and I would fight to preserve the integrity of that mission.  I will need  to evaluate my stand on  breeding an animal (I love) for food for another animal (I don’t).  But until I wean myself off meat, how can I criticize a snake with a brain the size of a pea and minimal ability to get to the produce section of a grocery store, much less push a cart, from feeding on basically the same thing? Dogs eat meat and no one worries about the chickens or beef, lamb, or horse in their canned food. This kid was being honest, thoughtful and acting legally, and in the best interest of his pets. But now he was thinking a little bit more about an animal he’d previously given minimal thought. As was I.

I showed them the pics I’d taken so far, and eventually started to drive off when the boys waved me back. His friend shouted that he’d caught a ribbon snake. I’d never heard of them. Are there really this many snakes swimming in nice looking water….beginning to get that creepy feeling. But I stopped and as I approached, the snake wriggled free and swam away without my ever seeing it up close. I’m okay with that.

©2012 Alison Colby-Campbell

5 responses to “Toss the Garter aka Snake Handlers

  1. snakeys are good for the world

  2. The only time snakes ever sounded charming to me was when I read The Private World Of Tasha Tudor (she was a fabulous children’s book illustrator and lived her life in a garden heaven). Check out this wonderful book. http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Private_World_of_Tasha_Tudor.html?id=QrUE5_xVovYC

  3. Hey, found you after you commented on my ScratchandPeck blog. Love your rants. Following!

  4. Hey, Scratch and Peck I’ve been following you blog for a while – love the minimalist posts so few words, but such rich stories. I’ve shared you blog with lots of chicken fans and artists alike. Thanks for checking in here.

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