My Garden's Unexpected Gues-s-s-ts

We bought the country place with the pond and the waterfall in the autumn. My mind's eye spent the winter seeing a garden - splurges of blue salvia, pink coneflowers, and Missouri primroses, accents of silvery lamb's ear, mounds of artemisia, and clouds of baby's breath - developing along its banks.

Gradually, winter folded in upon itself, then succumbed. One sunny spring day I headed to the water's edge with a little bag containing seven brown rhizomes. I had ordered them in the dead of winter when gardeners pore over catalogs to remind themselves that there will be another spring. My shovel turned the soil, and earthworms writhed in the tilth, warming my heart.

Just as I squatted down and started to refine the planting site with my fingers, my peripheral vision picked up a nearby movement. I turned to see a snake slithering through the tufts of grass.

I retreated, my tools abandoned. OK, now, I prompted myself from the safety of the house, the poor thing was probably as frightened of you as you were of it.

I headed back outside, approaching the pool below the waterfall warily, urging the dog to precede me. But she thought it was a game and wouldn't go first. Big help.

Now that I was sensitized, I saw more snakes. It reminded me of how I'd never seen a Hudson Hornet until my dad came home with one in 1949. Then the world seemed filled with them, even the same color. (Blue or green; we could never agree.)

The snakes were not blue or green, but brown, edging toward black in the water. Three swam, making long ripples. Three sunned themselves like skinny girls baking by a swimming pool.

I retreated again, maybe for good, I thought, despairing of making my spin on Monet's garden at Giverny a reality.

That evening, my husband stood watch while I planted the rhizomes. But I felt beleaguered. What kind of a garden could a woman have if she was afraid to be in it and needed a bodyguard to plant a bulb?

"I can kill them," my husband said.

I shook my head. "The place was theirs before it was ours. We're the intruders. We can't do that."

My field guide to reptiles told me these snakes weren't pit vipers and weren't poisonous, but it made little difference. Northern water snakes might as well be copperheads, given the perimeter I'd assigned them. I gave the water wide berth as I meandered through the yard each day, fretting about my fear, and I remembered a story my husband had told about an incident when he was in college.

He was working in a lab, running rats through a maze. One evening it got so hot that he took off his clothes under his lab coat. When he picked up one of the animals to put it in the maze, it sprang from his hand, hit the floor, and jumped again. Before he knew it he was up on a chair, clutching his "skirt" around him - "just like a girl!"

Although I gardened in jeans, I felt just that vulnerable. How could I even the playing field in my mind?

I WENT to the basement and dug out my tall winter boots. They had helped fashion snow angels; now they would help me face my devils. With them on, and my jeans tucked into the tops, I felt like a farm woman ready to muck out a barn: sturdy, capable, invulnerable.

I clumped toward the creek. From a short distance off, I reconnoitered. One in the water. Another lounging half-camouflaged by a rock.

I stomped and spoke, making my presence known. "Hello, snakes, I am here." I was a well-equipped Caesar moving into Gaul, only I was not here to permanently rout the enemy. "You're going to have to share," I announced.

I plunged through the pool, my boots splashing, dislodging the sediment and the tiny rocks on the bottom, turning the water cocoa brown with mud. The snakes slunk away, giving me a wide berth. I knew they would be back; the garden I was going to create beside the creek would be snake heaven. But I sure hoped I could learn to coexist.

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