Of snakes and signs

My dad spied this yellow rat snake along the Chesser Island Boardwalk in the Okefenokee Swamp in March 2019.

This morning I heard a Zoom talk by author Janisse Ray, whose Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is not only wonderful, but a particular a must-read for anyone visiting the Okefenokee Swamp (one of my favorite South Georgia places). I met her in person a few years ago and fan-girled so badly that when she asked for my e-mail address, my brain went blank and I think I gave her some garbled combination of nonsensical letters. Not one of my finer moments!

But her talk today was, of course, lovely. She has such a gentle, soothing voice, with a drawl like a languid Southern river flowing toward the ocean. As almost a side note, she mentioned seeing a snake during an experience she was describing, and added that snakes symbolize transformation.

I’ve heard that before, but it reminded me of a couple of things that happened over the past week.

One is that both of my ball pythons shed, within days of each other (and oh, were they ravenous afterward!). Last spring, shortly before quarantine, I wrote about how vulnerable and defensive snakes become in their opaque state just prior to shedding, and I likened myself to them. Rereading that post a few days ago caused me to reconsider how desperately I’ve been fighting the aloneness of this fall, and to resolve to try to reframe this season in my life not as a harbinger of the future or as the embodiment of a worst-case scenario, but as temporary opacity that’s preparing me to cast away parts of myself I’ve outgrown and no longer need.

Younger, smaller Ligeia helped with publicity shots for my almost-novella “Matriarchy,” anthologized in Exquisite Aberrations.

This also marked Charlotte’s first full shed since she joined my household. When she was rehomed with me in August, she was half covered in old, dead scales. As soon as I set up her tank with a full water bowl, she crawled into it and didn’t emerge for hours. Over the next several days, I found patches of cast-away skin floating on the water and caught in her log. This time, I was relieved to see her old skin bundled up in a tightly wadded ball; adequate hydration meant she could glide out of it like a sleeve.

And now both Charlotte and Ligeia are flashing their new skins, or will be once they’ve finished digesting their dinners. Their sides are smooth and glossy, the scales bright and multi-hued.

My other significant snake story this week entailed seeing a copperhead — and, because I’m me, analyzing the heck out of the experience to draw a life lesson.

I know seeing it might not seem like a big deal. People encounter copperheads all the time where I live, in rural southeastern Georgia (and I also know from experience that people often say they see copperheads when they’re actually seeing banded water snakes). But I’d never managed to spot a non-captive specimen.

For someone who adores snakes and constantly scans her surroundings in the hope of finding them and has even incurred raised eyebrows from forest rangers when I ask where and how to see snakes, I’m really, really bad at noticing them. My dad — who fears and loathes them — is constantly pointing them out on walks and hikes. He says (kindly) that he needs a more finely tuned ability to locate snakes so he can avoid them, whereas I have no primal compulsion to identify them since they don’t scare me. But still.

He espied this one at Magnolia Plantation near Charleston, also in March 2019.

I’m especially intrigued by venomous snakes. Maybe because they seem rarer, or at least constitute fewer of my personal sightings. Maybe because they evoke a delicious frisson of danger, even though I keep a respectful distance whenever I encounter them. I’ve seen cottonmouths more often than the other pit vipers; in fact, on the final walk I took with my dog Bishop, less than two hours before his scheduled euthanasia, a cottonmouth came very close to striking his nose when he dipped his head to drink from a drainage pond. And a few years ago I got to check timber rattlers off my bucket list when one crossed the road in front of my car. I still need to see an Eastern diamondback and a pygmy rattler, and until this past week I’d never managed to spot a copperhead even though I live in prime habitat.

I almost missed this one. On this particular evening the dog and I started our usual route through the woods, and I pulled him away from the white belly of an unidentifiable snake that had obviously lost a battle with someone’s tire. The previous week we’d passed the corpse of a northern ringneck, and the week before that he’d flipped onto his back and rubbed himself all over the flattened remains of a black snake before I could stop him. “Why are the only snakes I see here dead?” I asked out loud.

We followed the road out of the woods, but it quickly became clear that as badly as we both wanted the walk, our usual two-mile loop was not an option. Even though the sun was setting, the temperature remained unseasonably high. The air in the trees felt slightly cooler, but once we emerged, my shirt quickly soaked through and the dog was panting so heavily that I didn’t think it was safe for him to continue. So we turned back into the woods, the shortest route to my car. And as we did, I noticed what I first thought was a branch with brown leaves in the road. When we drew closer, I realized it was a copperhead, mouth open to thermoregulate.

I snapped a few lousy photos of the snake with my phone, careful to keep the (completely oblivious) dog behind me. Then I tried to chase it off the road. There was too much foot and bike and car traffic for this to be a safe situation for either humans or the snake. I tossed my bag of dog treats toward it, hoping to spook it into moving. No luck. (My aim is so bad that I was able to retrieve the treats without even getting within striking distance.) I found a discarded beer can on the shoulder of the road and threw that. Still no success. If I hadn’t had the dog with me, I would have gotten a long stick and tried to gently prod the snake off the pavement.

But I did have the dog, and I couldn’t risk a bite to his toes or nose. So reluctantly, I headed around a curve and out of the woods and up the hill to my car. And this is where my recent life lessons — that “trust me” message I keep getting, the don’t be afraid, don’t be discouraged, be still mantra — come into play.

It was too hot to leave the dog in the car — even for a few minutes, even in the shade with the AC running — and try to herd the snake out of danger. But as I opened the door for the dog, the verse that says God remarks even the fall of a sparrow came into my head.

Surely that applies to copperheads, too.

And I felt like God was telling me to trust: that if the snake’s time was up, then a homicidal tire would find it before I could even return. Besides, my attempts to scare it off the road had instead apparently caused it to freeze in place, so further interference might result in more harm than help. If the snake still had life to lead, God was perfectly capable of ushering it safely off the road without any assistance from me.

The timber rattler I encountered at a state park, when I had my snakeproof boots and no canine companion, so I was able to play crossing guard.

I almost didn’t go back there the next night, because I wasn’t sure I could stand knowing if the snake had perished. I almost took the dog to the greenway trail instead. I didn’t think I could bear to see copperhead pancake on the road and realize I’d been unable to prevent the death of a beautiful wild creature.

But. I had to. I had to see what happened when I tried to trust.

So we followed our usual route, and as we walked around the curve of the road into the woods, my pulse sped up. I hate so much when people kill snakes, when they despise and fear and prey on them instead of trying to coexist. (Leslie Marmon Silko talks so eloquently of this in The Turquoise Ledge, of how she lives peaceably with rattlesnakes around and sometimes even inside her house.) I scanned the pavement and shoulder anxiously.

And saw nothing.

Of course, I don’t know for a fact that the copperhead survived. A grounds crew must have gone over that stretch at some point during the previous twenty-four hours, because the leaves that had drifted almost onto the asphalt were blown back a few feet along each shoulder, and someone or something had removed the other snake’s remains. But there was no indication that the copperhead had met with a violent end. No corpse, no dark stain from blood or viscera on the pavement.

And I think that uncertainty is important: the space where I trust that God prodded that snake to travel four feet to safety, into the camouflaging net of magnolia leaves on the grassy shoulder. And I let myself believe that maybe, maybe God even did that just for me. Just because I needed to know I can trust God with small things. Although the life of a snake isn’t really a small thing to God.

Schrodinger had a cat. I have a copperhead.

And a little more faith, a little more trust, a little more hope than I had a week ago.

How’s that for transformation?

I spotted this cottonmouth sunning right beside a boardwalk in Florida. Whenever anyone passed us, I pretended to text or take selfies–to protect the snake from harassment or worse–and probably 25 people walked right by without ever noticing it.

Published by Monique Bos

I write, read, take photos, engage in other random creative acts, watch bad creature movies, and love animals.

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