He must find snakes charming

Most people would think twice before disturbing someone early on a Sunday morning, but a distant neighbor of ours had urgent business. With a copperhead contentedly coiled in his garage, he drove straight to the only person he knew who could - and would - relocate the poisonous snake. Not kill it, just carry it a good way back into the woods.

Charlie earned his reputation as a snake handler (and savior - he once stopped traffic to pluck a blue racer from a busy city street) over the years he lived close to the land in an area rich with copperheads. The fat and none too comely reptiles are right at home in the hollows here in south-central Indiana. Our ridge-top farm is more hospitable to harmless blacksnakes, but before we settled up here, Charlie lived in a wooded stream valley where he quickly learned to remove dangerous snakes from around the yard where his three young daughters romped.

I waved him off on his errand and settled back down with my book. No way was I going to hold the burlap sack that conveyed a copperhead on its journey to a new home. Besides, Charlie knows his way around such situations without assistance.

Somewhere over the years I've lost touch with the peculiar pleasure I'd felt handling the little garter snakes my grammar school pals brought to class (almost, I think, to the boys' disappointment - we girls were expected to gasp and shrink away). I wish snakes no harm, but now the sight of one makes my heart skip. Perhaps it was the raised hissing head of an adder between me and an outcrop I'd hoped to study during my days doing geologic field work. That piece of rock never rang to my hammer. But I think my all-too-human aversion to snakes predated that encounter. I don't know where it came from, and I'm not proud of it. I realize snakes have their right and helpful place in the scheme of things, and I wish I still felt as comfortable about them as I did when I was 9 or 10.

The best I can say for myself is that I've learned to tolerate the occasional blacksnake if there is a decent space between us. I certainly admire the creatures. What else could have controlled the population of mice in our milk barn during our years as dairy farmers, when the ready supply of grain might otherwise have triggered a rodent explosion? Generally the reptiles kept to themselves. If I happened upon one slithering across the floor of the feed room, the snake was generally as keen to avoid me as I was to yield all the space it wanted. I have never ceased to be thankful that I was not the poor soul who clutched the blacksnake coiled around the milk parlor hose. One day, as was his routine, the fellow who used to pick up our milk in his tank truck blithely reached through the door for the hose to rinse out the tank. He never expected that "hose" to respond. I believe I'd have fainted.

My own surprise encounter came when I once found a blacksnake in the farmhouse. Given the shed skins we've found in the attic I should perhaps not have been so shocked. It disappeared under a desk just as I registered that it was a snake. This happened just before my mother visited, and I have never (until now) told her she'd shared the house with another less sociable visitor before it found its way out.

I've watched many a snake slither off from the noise of my tractor as I've raked hay - and I've always instinctively braked to let them escape intact. Once, as I stacked the wagon behind the baler, I discovered a survivor of the clattering machinery. The blacksnake was very much alive and none too happy. Twisting about from the bale that sandwiched its lower body, it sought its freedom with a passion that transcended the most potent of species barriers. It was a plea from one creature to another. Gingerly freed, the brief captive lost no time streaking to the nearby wood with my heartfelt blessings.

I may admire snakes and wish to spare them, but all in all I relate more readily to other species of wildlife. Spring after spring, a robin has nested and raised its young on an interior corner shelf of our front porch roof. I've watched the bird for weeks devotedly sitting on her clutch of eggs, then rejoiced in their hatching, and marveled at the tireless dedication of parental feeding, cleaning, and warming that ensured the young birds' survival through that perilous first month of life.

I know all the caveats about not interfering with nature. Snakes need their nourishment, too. But that summer day when a large blacksnake began to climb the limestone column to the nest of fledgling robins, there was only one thing to do.

I called Charlie.

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