Friday, April 3, 2009

A Snake's Worth

Grampa and Gramma were organic gardeners. They used nature to fertilize, control weeds and pests, and to "feed" the earth of their gardens. They also believed that wild animals had benefits on a farm as well.

Unlike many people, Grampa and Gramma held snakes in high regard. Two kind of snakes were very valuable around our place: the Garter snake, and the Black snake.
Garter snakes don't grow very large, and are about the color of the ground. Two or three were always in the garden somewhere. There were times when Gram would be on hands and knees weeding a row of carrots, and a garter snake would glide by, as if it regarded my gramma as a well known friend. She'd calmly use her trowel or hand fork to lift it's long, smooth body and place it gently into another aisle. She never "deviled" her garter snakes, and wouldn't abide anyone else doing so either. They were to be respected, never frightened out of the garden and, under no circumstances were they to be killed! Gramma believed the Garter snake would "eat his weight in bugs everyday!"
Another well-respected snake around our place was the black snake. I first encountered one while taking a walk down the old railroad bed in back of our house. As I glanced up, this massive snake was languidly coiled around a few low hanging sasafrass branches just above my head. Scream? Oh, yes, I did! And ran, hell-bent-for-leather, to the house. I was astonished and a bit flustered to discover my grandparents pleasure---yes, pleasure!---with our big, black visitor. "There'll be alot less mice around here, you can bet yer boots on that!" Grampa said.
But I never knew how much snakes were valued on our little farm until one day something happened that will remain in my memory forever.

At one time, the road that ran in front of our house was dirt. Not too much traffic ventured up Stull Road when I was little, and those who did had no time to stop and decide what kind of snake was in the road before running over it. One day, that's just what happened, and I guess my gramma was witness to just such a "smooshing incident." And I was witness to a very unusual sight. Stepping onto the front porch, I heard my gramma exclaim, "Oh! they just ran over it! Poor thing!" I watched Gramma run out to middle of the dirt road and I followed. There, sqirming at her feet were dozens of small snakes, no bigger than nightcrawler worms. The car had hit and killed a pregnant garter snake and the accident had strewn the baby snakes all over the road. Gathering her apron up in front of her, she reached down and filled her hands with the babies. She placed them into her apron, fingerful after fingerful. After she'd gathered every last one, she supported the sack of squirming, aproned snakes and traipsed across the property to the garden. There, she lowered to her knees and let the babies spill out. They slipped off in all directions, and my Gramma sat back with a small smile on her face.

"Well now...those little ones'll take care of the bugs in the garden this summer."

There was a snake, however, that we didn't tolerate anywhere near the house: the rattlesnake. As summer approached, the grass was dilligently kept shorter than ever, and each Monday, the clothes still got hung on the clothesline that stretched the length of the back yard. One particular washday, Gramma had her biggest wicker basket full of wet clothes. She left the back porch and walked across the yard with the basket preventing her from seeing what was at her bare feet. When she reached the clotheline, she heard it. The dreaded rattle of a Diamondback's tail right before it strikes. Gramma knew the snake was at her feet. Somewhere. She froze for a moment, gripped by fear of what she couldn't see. Suddenly a thought came to her, and she let go the basket. Sure enough, the snake was directly below. Needless to say, the weight of wet clothes wrung out with a wringer washer was far and away enough to pin any snake down as long as necessary, which was all the time Gramma needed to get Grampa. Off came the head with a sharp hatchet, and Gramma went on hanging clothes. Just another day in the woods.