Around the bend: Nature's 'villains' should make noise

Last weekend, our 17-year-old nephew stopped by to check out what my husband, Mark, and I were doing in the garden. (Apparently he’s never seen anyone planting potatoes with a post-hole digger, a method we picked up from The New York Times bestseller “Concrete Cornucopia: How to Grow Vegetables in Rock Hard Clay.”)

But the boy never got to the garden because on his way across the lawn, he suddenly yelled, “Snake!” and leaped backward, jumping right out of his shoes. Literally.

Granted, he was wearing flip-flops. But given his velocity, it probably would have worked with Timberlands, too.

“It’s huge!” he shouted, shuddering.

We ran over to get a look at the hideous creature, which I assumed from his reaction must have been an escaped giant boa constrictor heading to the barn to devour one of the pigs.

“That?” Mark said, pointing. A 2-foot-long garter snake lay nearby in the grass.

“It tried to attack me,” said my nephew. Yes, everyone knows garter snakes, when not busy eating worms or toads, love to lie in wait for humans, strike at their throats and then swallow them whole.

Clearly, however, the snake saw itself as the victim here. It had, after all, been lazily winding its away across the yard when flip-flops started flying in all directions.

Before moving off it flicked its tongue at us, as if to say, “That kid needs to relax. He almost gave me a heart attack.”

Secretly, I sided with the snake.

But then, I like snakes. I’m surprised at how many people hate them. Most often, it’s because the snake startles them. The ensuing adrenalin rush triggers a fight-or-flight response. While some, like my nephew, opt for a shoeless retreat, others grab the nearest spade and hack the thing to death.

I’m no herpetologist, but it seems like it would be in the snake’s interest to learn how to signal its presence better. Rather than slither silently into the path of an unsuspecting human, a snake might — in the spirit of self-preservation — clear its throat first. A simple “ahem” could give the human a gentle heads up without setting off a panic-induced spade attack.

My first snake encounter happened in my high school biology lab, where our teacher kept a young python as a pet. I was able to handle the snake in a controlled environment, far from any large garden implements.

Most people aren’t so lucky. They meet their first snake in the woodpile or the tall grass, without advance warning or formal introduction. The shock creates a lifelong animosity toward all snakes.

I get it, but the rational side of me says it doesn’t matter. People shouldn’t be afraid of creatures that don’t mean them any harm.

Then my irrational side says, “Oh yeah? So explain your feelings about spiders.”

Good point.

When a python — a small, well-fed one, anyway — coils around my wrist, I remain calm. But if I catch sight of even the tiniest spider suspended four feet from the ceiling by an invisible thread, I will climb out a window to avoid it.

If I try to scoot around it, there’s always a chance that I’ll walk into a lateral strand of silk. I’m sure this will disturb and enrage the spider, prompting it to skitter up the strand and onto my face, and then I will have to be hospitalized for the subsequent nervous breakdown.

It strikes me as ironic that on the day my nephew saw the snake, Mark and I were gardening — a questionable hobby for a person with spider issues.

Large, semi-transparent dirt-colored spiders lurk everywhere in the garden. I never know, as I pull a weed or pry up another clump of clay, when one is going to dart out and potentially zigzag up my arm. (According to the neighbors I scream louder — and more often — than the average gardener.)

I’m willing to concede that the garden spiders don’t really intend to terrorize me. And I accept that they have a right to live in the garden.

But I think my idea for snakes would work just as well for spiders: If they’re going to scurry out of the ground in my general direction, the least they could do is clear their throats first.


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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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