Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Things are tough all over

I was on my way to the bank when I opened the door and discovered a three-foot-long snake on the doorstep. It looked at me. I looked at it. Its black forked tongue slithered out and licked the air. Neither of us moved.

“Lori, come see this,” I yelled.

She halted transfixed at the top of the stairs.

“Is it poisonous?” she asked.


“What kind is it?”

I wasn’t sure. I pointed out the drab gray body and a faint greenish tinge on its underparts. Secretly I thought racer, though I couldn’t say why. 

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

“It doesn’t belong here,” she said. 

I closed the door and dashed into the back room to check the field guide. Sure enough, it was a racer, Coluber constrictor, a life-herp for me and a terrible aggravation to Lori.

“I don’t like it there,” she said. 

“I’m not killing it,” I argued. And getting nowhere—her look was one of blame, as if it were my fault that the snake decided to move into (literally) our porch. The same thing happened once in Colorado when she found a garter snake on the stairs. After screaming bloody murder she accused me of putting it there. No husband, I like to believe, is that stupid.

When I reopened the door the snake disappeared into a crack. Unfortunately, the saying “out of sight, out of mind” does not apply to herps in the yard, the basement or on the front doorstep. Lori was perfectly aware of the snake’s location and knew with utter certainty that it was up to no good. Her motto: Any snake is one too many.

Once it had been mine, too, but times change and so do people. I was taught to kill rattlesnakes on sight though any reason given has long since been forgotten. Because they’re poisonous, probably. They’re also beneficial, fairly docile and like you and me prefer to be left alone. This was in West Texas where almost every living thing was thorny, spiny, fangy or potentially lethal, a fact which no doubt gave the beleaguered occupants a somewhat jaded view of nature. Watching my grandmother casually dice a rattlesnake into small bloody bits with a hoe out by the henhouse and my grandfather stopping in the middle of a country road to shoot a rattlesnake basking on the shoulder drove home the point that such actions were what civilized people did to keep the wild at bay. It was us versus them, and we were outnumbered. 

But never outgunned. Sometime during my teenage years that mentality shifted to a more charitable approach. For my part it came when I was out hunting with my father south of Albuquerque in a dry area crisscrossed with acequias and framed in the west by a ridge of sandy hills slowly melting into rounded hummocks and deepcut ravines, like an ice cream cake left out in the sun too long. At some point during my wandering I glanced down to find a rattlesnake keeping pace at my feet, seemingly unconcerned, though aware, of my presence. I placed the barrel of the .22 against the back of its wedge-shaped head and squeezed the trigger, and thereafter watching it thrash its life out in the sand knew with implacable certainty that I would never again do such a thing. The senselessness of the killing made me feel petty and brutish. 

At some point in our young lives we come to a decision however confusing that things we were taught were either wrong or fading remnants from another era, and we have to relearn our personal geographies. It might take months or years but in my case it’s pretty much been a day-to-day affair. The racer certainly complicated matters. After promising to caulk the cracks I remembered the spider wasps that each summer inhabited the selfsame crevices. Would the two species coexist peacefully? Would filling the cracks drive the wasps away? I’m no fan of stinging insects but these small wasps are a special treat to watch as they paralyze wolf spiders with their venom and drag them back to their lairs. 

Our patio, I should explain, is in need of repair but perfectly serviceable, and anyway the wildlife appreciates it. Recently the county appraisers showed up on their six-year checkup to see if improvements had been made so they could collect more money. When I told them the cracks were wider and deeper, I noticed the absolute immobility of their pens. I don’t expect a discount.

The wasps aren’t the only creatures utilizing the fissured patio. Great plains skinks have been especially active this season, gliding in and out of the cracks like armored ghosts. Most are around seven inches in length but one in the garden must reach a good 12 inches, a relative giant in the skink species. The previous owner told us that copperheads were once common near the old shed foundation, an area where we’ve laid out a straw bale garden. Because of his warning the skink always jumpstarts my adrenaline when it darts in front of me, a defense mechanism likely predicated by a childhood spent roaming rattlesnake territory. For her part, Lori is developing an intense dislike for the lizard and complains about it with regularity.

Last week I came home to find Lori in a lather. The garden skink had once again scared the wits out of her. As it was, I had just finished reading an article about India’s Sundarbans, a mangrove forest at the mouth of the Ganges Delta and the largest single mangrove ecosystem in the world. It’s also the most dangerous place to live. Honey gatherers, fishermen and wood cutters are routinely eaten by tigers or crocodiles or fatally bitten by king cobras and other lethal reptiles. I had also just taken photos of a three-foot iguana some kids found roaming the streets of Washington. 

A foot-long skink? 

“You have no idea how easy you have it,” I said.

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