Contrary to the Chinese Zodiac, for me, 2014 was more like the Year of the Snake than the Year of the Horse. I should have had a hint of what was to come when in 2013 I just missed a close encounter with a rattlesnake while serving as Artist in Residence at Mesa Verde National Park. Chatting with fellow backcountry trekkers, I learned that one of their party nearly stepped on one the day before. I had considered going on this adventure, but decided that my body needed some time to adjust to the altitude and dry heat of the American Southwest, so I had spent the morning safely ensconced at the park’s museum instead.
My very first herpetological contact occurred while growing up on a farm in Central Ohio. Ohio has three species of venomous snakes, the Eastern Diamondback or Timber Rattler, the Copperhead and the Pygmy Rattlesnake, but none live in the central part of the state. Early 18th century settlers noted the strong smell of snakes, something like cucumbers, along the limestone banks of the Ohio River, present day site of Columbus, Ohio, my home town. They were long gone by the time I came along. Instead, our farm was populated by the ubiquitous Garter Snake, who rummaged around the leaf mold in the lilac bushes and sun bathed in close proximity to the farm’s outbuildings.
Although they are harmless, I was always somewhat anxious about their presence as my brother and his friends loved to chase me around the yard in attempt to put one down the back of my shirt while I screamed bloody murder. Now while many a farmer and his wife utilized the blade of a hoe to rid their farm of these critters, that was not the case at our place. My Dad was an environmentalist before there was even a name for it. We were taught to protect and respect all God’s creatures. With his dry wit and country sensibility, he advised my brother and I that “without snakes we’d all be up to our asses in rats and mice.”
Now fast forward to 2014. I like to spend my Sundays hiking in the local nature preserves. It is both peaceful and invigorating and places me in close proximity to our Creator. This year on the very first hike of the season, I noticed a tiny garter snake warming himself in the sun while lounging on some greenery about chest high and a foot away. While innocous, he gave me a start. The next week at different preserve, I nearly stepped on a “stick.” See below.
This little cutie, a Black Rat snake I believe, had just shed his skin and would not budge. He kindly allowed me to take his photo and go along my way. The following week at the same preserve I was fascinated by a long black “lightening strike” on the side of a very tall tree. Closer inspection however, revealed another Black Rat snake about 10 to 12 feet long who was working his way up the tree, mostly likely for a tasty meal of bird’s eggs.
The saga continued later in the summer when I traveled west for an artist residency at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska. Upon arrival, the first thing I noticed was the presence of signs advising visitors to use caution while hiking, as this was the habitat of the Prairie Rattlesnake. In an apparent attempt to soften the message, the signs included very cute and non-threatening images of the critters. This Disney-esque image was severely challenged upon entering the Visitor Center, where a stuffed rattler, forever frozen in a strike pose, rested on the counter in a glass case. Attached was a warning to use extreme caution while on the trails. You can imagine I did, to the point that I was reluctant to walk in the grass…. anywhere, as similar warnings were posted darn near everywhere I went whether in Nebraska, South Dakota, or Wyoming. Apparently this part of America is snake heaven. On one of my last days in the park I met this little guy.
Remembering my Dad’s warning about rats and mice, which I might add are carriers of both the plague and Hanta Virus, I gave him a wide berth, took his photo and moved on. At the time I posted this on Facebook, the “ick factor” was pretty high among my readers. Several suggested I obtain a good pair of cowboy boots as this was why they were invented in the first place. I can take good advice when given. Who knew style and safety could be rolled into a pair of foot gear? 2014, Year of the Snake has come to a close. Bring it on 2015, the Year of the Sheep, I could use a rest!