Sharing the Ozarks With a King

JOHN and I found our wooded Ozark land with its spring-fed creek and deep hollows full of dogwood blossoms on a Saturday in May. On the following Saturday, we were signing papers at the bank.

When we told my mother we were buying land in the Ozarks, her first question was, "Have you seen any snakes?"

Whether or not snakes live in the Ozarks, the only possible answer to her question was "No."

Until we came to Spring Hollow, my encounters with wild creatures had been limited to birds and squirrels: that is, unless the creatures were caged, stuffed, pickled, or pictured. The only other wildlife I had come into contact with was a snake.

I found the snake when I was playing in our yard, and even to a very little person, it looked like a very small snake. My father said it was a garter snake. As far as my mother was concerned, it might as well have been a rattlesnake, and it must be killed.

I played inside the house for the rest of that summer, though we never saw another snake in the yard. As a matter of fact, I haven't seen a snake in the city since then, but the fear remained ... a primitive terror based, so I thought, on the natural antipathy that comes with being human.

My mother would not believe there is such a thing as a harmless or beneficial snake. I knew if I told her now that we were sharing the Ozarks with snakes, we'd never get her to come near the place. So I said the only possible thing: "No snakes."

Of course I was not telling the truth. We saw our first Arkansas snake when the real estate agent's car swerved to avoid hitting a long black thing stretching over half a country road.

"Black snake," he said. "Good things to have around." We were driving along the front of what was by then our own property. That snake was obviously one of our neighbors.

Every bit of Eve's old horror swiveled down my spine, and I was too shocked and embarrassed by my reaction to say anything. For the first time I wondered if I could cope with country living. My doubts bothered me almost as much as seeing the snake.

I watched as it swirled across the road and disappeared in a patch of blackberry bushes at the edge of our property. How could I ever learn to live with that snake and all of its relatives?

For the next few days I tried to keep snakes out of my thoughts as completely as I wanted to keep them out of my woods, but it was no use. The horror wouldn't go away. I wanted desperately to love everything about Spring Hollow. I knew country people had to cope, but even before we had enjoyed one Saturday alone on our land, I had failed miserably.

After spending a few more days floundering in my own confusion and fear, I decided to go to the city's central library and find out more about snakes. I located the section on reptiles, and looked carefully up and down the narrow aisle before I took any books off the shelf. I was unable to shake the feeling that snakes were a deviant interest. When no one was looking, I pulled out a few books and took them to a corner table.

The snake we had seen, the books told me, was a member of the King snake family. This large snake is respected because it eats rats, mice, and other snakes, especially venomous ones. It is normally mild in temperament, and a friend to the farmer as long as it is kept away from the eggs in the henhouse.

In the reptile reference books I read words like elegant and graceful. I learned how amazingly well snakes have adapted to a life without limbs. I read the obvious (but rarely talked about) fact that snakes never hunt humans, but seek insects, slugs, centipedes, rats, and mice. They usually try their best to stay out of sight. Even when frightened or cornered, a venomous snake will not normally waste much venom on an enemy. The venom is created for use in capturing food and must be available for that pur pose. Snakes know that. Humans usually don't.

As I sat thinking, books open, I heard a gasp. I turned to see a woman backing off, looking both embarrassed and horrified. I stared after her. Was it that bad?

If we are thinking, reasoning beings, and all I was reading was true, why do snakes inspire such horror? Does this prove a lingering relationship to something primitive we have not overcome, even if we live in cities remote from any area where a snake might be found?

Watching the woman retreat, I felt a bit sorry for the reptile family, but my own spine still crinkled coldly when I looked back at the photographs of coiled snakes in the library books. Education was helpful, but I still needed a better answer. I decided to put the whole thing as far out of my thoughts as I possibly could, and, except for rare moments of apprehension when I was in the woods and heard a rustle, I succeeded in doing so.

Weeks passed. We spent every Saturday at Spring Hollow, and were beginning to make a clearing on our hillside. We needed space for a storage shed and a spot to park the van. We were planning to enlarge the clearing enough so there would eventually be room for a weekend cabin.

Saturdays at Spring Hollow meant seeing many living things, including snakes. One very large black snake, perhaps the one we had seen on the road weeks earlier, came by regularly. We named him Fred, after a friend of ours who kept a pet boa constrictor. We often looked up to see Fred sliding lazily by, always following the same downhill path. It was as if he came by once every Saturday to check up on his hillside.

Late one Saturday I looked toward the evening sun and saw a slender green coil around the trunk of a tree. The sunlit body looked like it was made of satin glass. The only motion I detected was the flicking of a tiny tongue as the snake assessed the meaning of my presence. I froze, as still as the snake. We inspected each other, then settled down to watch.

The snake won. I decided I needed to start getting ready for the return trip to the city and went to put tools away. When I came back to the tree, the snake was nowhere in sight. I stared at the empty spot on the tree. It looked barren, its beautiful ornamentation gone.

Not long ago we went to a program about snakes. The speaker, a biology teacher from our small-town high school, brought several living snakes. All of them had been captured in the Ozark forest. After his talk and demonstration, he offered to give the nonpoisonous snakes to children in the audience who would promise to release them in wooded areas before the day ended.

A forest of hands reached up eagerly. As I watched him hand a little girl her prize ... a slender, glass-like green snake ... I suddenly pictured my green snake, motionless against the fading sunlight.

The emotion that struck me was not horror, but awe, and yes, love for this beautiful creature.

Once more I was startled by my feelings about snakes, but this time I knew that they were natural and right. There was no more horror. The enmity was gone!

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