Wild Kingdom: Nature Comes Home

The general consensus is that the snake has gone.

The wildlife removal man believes it. My husband believes it. Friends who live in the country and know a thing or two about snakes assure me that it must be so. Long gone, they tell me, nodding sagely.

Me, I have my doubts. When a workman repairing a pipe in our basement ceiling discovered a snake skin, my panic level soared. Fact: A snake has been in the house. It came in through a hole in the foundation to shed its skin. What it did after that is a matter of some conjecture.

It did not set up housekeeping, the wildlife man tells me. It went back out the way it came. Nine times out of 10, that’s what they do, he said. They only come in to cool off or to shed skin and then they leave.

What about the 10th time, I ask him. It seems there isn’t a good answer to that question. He assures me that this particular snake is non-venomous. A black rat snake, to be precise. Good-sized. Only reason it would bite would be if you got right up on it, he says.

I explain that getting anywhere near this snake, or indeed any snake, is not part of my plan. I struggle to dial back the mounting hysteria in my voice, determined not to be the melodramatic Yankee woman who’s scared stiff of a harmless old black snake. But there’s no denying it. That’s exactly who I am. I imagine opening the washer to put in a load of laundry and finding it coiled there, or surprising it in some basement cupboard.

Unlikely, the wildlife man says. He has sealed up every crack and cranny on the outside of the house, checked the attic. If you have any problems, give us a call, he tells me. I refrain from asking him if that would be before or after I have a heart attack in the laundry room.

Believing that knowledge is power, I have given snakes my best shot. I have chaperoned countless school field trips to nature centers, sat attentively through herpetology lectures. I understand that these creatures are shy and retiring. I have listened to those who maintain that snakes are no more threatening than chipmunks, and that they are far more frightened of you than you are of them.

In theory, this all sounds great. I would, however, point out that it was not a chipmunk that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. That was not a roiling mass of chipmunks in the famous Indiana Jones scene. And there is no way on God’s green earth that any snake is as scared of me as I am of it.

Once, at summer camp in Vermont, I accidentally stepped on a black snake. To its credit, it did not strike, but raced away into the woods. That long ago episode should reassure me, but somehow, it does not. A lifetime later, I can still recall the moment of dry-mouthed terror as I realized what I had done. I think of it as I walk down the basement stairs, eyes roving from floor to ceiling.

It’s comforting to know I’m not alone in this illogical fear. There is a story I love about spiritual master Thomas Merton, whose Kentucky hermitage lacked indoor plumbing. He tells of going to the outhouse at night, banging a soup kettle with a spoon to warn off the black snake that frequented the place. Are you in there, you bastard, he would call, clanging his way down the dark path. Get lost.

I’ve started singing, loudly and off-key, on my trips to the basement. So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye. I slam open doors and bang on appliances. I make my presence known.

The snake has gone, or so I’m told. I bear it no ill will. I sincerely hope it finds a cool, calm place to call home.

I hear North Carolina is nice.

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