Snake in the Grass!

The months of May and June are some of the prettiest times of year here in the Hudson Valley. The early spring rains have moved on, the sun is shining, and the forests are bursting with color!

Down on our floodplain the woods are carpeted with the pinks and whites of the Danes rocket, which we habitually refer to as phlox. It is about three feet high, and any spot where the floodwaters did not wash the seeds away is thick with the blossoms and their powdery scent. Wild cardinal flowers that have grown along the creek's edge have been uprooted and washed downstream, probably to someone else's yard by now. We enjoy seeing the sweet Dutchman's britches, forget-me-nots, buttercups, wild geraniums, strawberries, and trout lilies. And there are even some wildflowers, which I cannot identify from a field guide. I am happy to have theses wild colorful signs of spring grace our environment, as I dare not plant anything on the floodplain that I would only be heartbroken to eventually lose to another wash out.

Two years ago I learned my lesson, when in the fall I planted over 10,000 foxglove seeds in the woods only to have them washed away in the spring. I would love to know who the lucky recipient is of that! I'll bet they think it's a miracle!

Using the push mower that we hauled out of the creek (and my Dad fixed up), we cut swaths just wide enough to avoid the ticks that jump off the branches, and just short enough to see where we are stepping. Visitors to our home over the years have often commented when walking in the woods: “Wow! I'll bet you have a ton of black snakes here!” And yes, one would think that with all the birds in the trees, chipmunks, frogs, toads, fish, insects, field mice, and baby bunnies snug in their nests in the ground, a hungry reptile would have quite the hefty smorgasbord.

Fallen trees, now rotting and hollow, and historic old stone walls provide the perfect environment for them to thrive, mostly undisturbed. Actually in all the years we have been here we have not seen a single black snake. But that doesn't mean we are not without many other varieties of the slithery creatures most mammals fear. One outdoor enthusiast said that if we don't have black snakes, “Well then that means you have a copperhead problem!” Oh great! Just what I wanted to hear! (Not!)

If it weren't for the fact that some years ago I gave in to my teenaged son's pleading to have a pet snake, I may never have had the chance to learn more about these mysterious creatures and also learn not to fear them (for the most part).

First of all I learned that snakes should not be kept as pets. It is simply not natural! They come with their own host of health problems, ticks, infections, hunger strikes -- and if you have a nasty one, it is hard to clean their tank and feed them. Notice I am implying that I was the one that had to clean and care for the animal? It was a bull snake, a cousin to the king snake and the pine snake. This guy was so nasty he would hiss just like Darth Vader, and strike the glass just when I turned on the light to enter the room! It was not a good relationship. My son moved out and that devil then had several other owners. He eventually died in a house fire many years later.

I went on to own a ball python after that. It's known as a good “starter snake” for pet owners. I figured, what the heck. I had that other evil devil in the house and never did get to interact with it, so I tried again. This poor animal had been captured, not bred in captivity. It was covered in ticks, which I had to pluck off with tweezers. It started out really fat and looked like a three foot slug. She was so traumatized and frightened by everything, she wouldn't eat for almost a full year. And she shrunk to only just about an inch in diameter. It was trip after trip to the vet, who had to force-feed her. One time she escaped and was lost in his office for about 10 days. She was very unhappy in such an unnatural environment.

Snakes are cold blooded. They don't reason, or plot, or have any capacity for affection. She committed suicide right in front of me one day, by coiling in her water dish and putting her head under the water. I tried mouth to mouth and compressions but still, I could see the life drain from her eyes as she went limp in my hands. I vowed then and there to NEVER own an animal that needed to be in a cage or tank ever again. I learned so much that I could probably qualify to be a veterinarian!

I wonder what it is about snakes that frighten people so much. I had a horse that was sure that every stick was a snake. Now that horse never read the bible, and had no knowledge of the story of Adam and Eve's temptation in the garden. How do other animals instinctively know to be afraid?!
It is always the same instinct. We are going about our business, often quite unaware, and suddenly there is a snake! It takes a millisecond for the eyes to see it, and tell the brain: SNAKE! And either you are frozen in your tracks, run for your life, fall all over yourself backwards, or jump higher than you knew you could.

I try to deliberately be aware of their possible presence, when picking up a tarp off the woodpile, weeding the garden, picking flowers or jogging in the woods on our paths. They are so miraculously camouflaged that you don't see them, well, until you see them!

Over the years, we have seen many snakes here and there, and their variety of colors and patterns are nothing short of miraculous, something like Indian corn! We have the king snake, which is black with a white chain-link fence pattern; the scarlet snake that looks like the poisonous coral snakes in Florida, only the sequence of the colors is different. I once saw a chicken swallow one of these like a piece of spaghetti! We have a gray water snake in the rocks of the cascade. I have seen a yellow and orange snake that I thought for sure was a copperhead, but studying the field guide I learned it was another variation of a water snake, and copperheads generally do not like the water. However all snakes can swim.

My husband once gave me a baby milk snake, beige with beautiful maroon chunks of color, that he had found in the rock garden: dried, and perfectly preserved. It probably got squished by a rock. There are also several varieties of corn snakes and garter snakes that help us by feeding on mice and insects.

Down at the Fran Marks Memorial Park, I recently let my leashed dog pull me to a tree. I just thought okay, she wants to smell the other dogs. Surprise! Surprise! There were two huge snakes at the base of the tree near the south end of the swimming pond by the drain. Who'd a thunk it!

I know she pawed at them and she was bitten. (She's okay!) I could look down at them, and in the short second of recognition, I knew they were not poisonous since they did not have a triangular shaped head or a diamond pupil in the eyes. Although they were orange and gray, they are a northern water snake. I feared someone would kill them just because they had orange coloring and could be mistaken for a copperhead, or simply because they are snakes. But they are still there at the base of the tree, so please do not disturb them and their nest of babies. Many times water snakes can be confused with water moccasins, but we do not have them here.

A water snake will swim on top of the water with its whole body afloat. A water moccasin's body will be below the water and only his head will remain above. They are nasty and aggressive and I hope with global warming that we do not end up with species like that, from further south, one day. Ugh! Copperheads? Yikes!!! That is where I draw the line! We have never seen one, but supposedly they smell like cucumbers. Last year in late summer, we were sitting near the water, and that smell came on, very suddenly, and strong. We vamoosed!

I use a wonderful book for reference: The National Audubon Society's Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians. I tagged the book with different colored scraps of paper, for different codes. I went through it to determine what kinds of snakes we can expect to see in our area, and then I flagged what ones I have seen and recorded how big or small they were and where I saw them.

I keep my rubber snakes from Halloween around our place. I put one on top of the stone wall that we always pass by, to serve as a friendly reminder to us and our guests to be conscious that snakes may be living nearby. I keep another one in the garden to keep the birds from raiding our berries. Some pranksters have gone so far as to put them in between the sheets of our guest beds for a laugh. I am leery about letting the dog run lose anywhere because she is young and ever so curious about the world.

Yes, for the most part, I am not afraid of snakes, but if I saw a copperhead I think I might need a diaper! Would you freeze, or run, or jump? Remember, however, snakes do have an important role to play in the natural order of things on earth. So the next time you see a snake in the grass, once you get over the fright, take another microsecond to marvel at their design as you admire the spring flowers of Clinton.


Pat Laine is an 8 year resident of Clinton. She owns and operates Little Creek Therapeutic Massage. She shares her home with her husband Will and their two Maine Coon cats. Whether walking in the woods, or from their vantage point overlooking Little Wappingers Creek and its environs, they observe the miracles of wildlife and plant life on a daily basis.

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