Look out! Snake in a tree!
Taking a break from pruning evergreens one balmy, damp afternoon last week, I popped indoors to refill my water bottle and returned to a mystery: Who had left a garden hose on the ground?
An enormous black snake, which by quick calculation measured at least 6 feet long, slowly slithered through the leaves, paused to raise its head, flicked its tongue and peered in my direction.
Now, I like snakes well enough, in their place — that place being at a distance. Not that I don’t appreciate their role in controlling the population of mice, insects and other pests; it’s just that they make me recoil.
People have reacted this way since ancient times.
As far back as 3000 B.C., Sumerians feared Ninazu, a snakelike god of the underworld; in Greek mythology, Medusa had hair made out of snakes and could turn those who gazed at her to stone; and then, of course, the evil, conniving serpent in the Garden of Eden forever ruined things by persuading Adam and Eve to eat fruit from the forbidden tree.
Today, just about every reference unfairly continues to cast the scaled reptile in an unfavorable light: snake in the grass, nest of vipers, lower than a snake’s belly, snake oil, snake pit ....
Anyway, the black snake and I watched each other for a few minutes, and then I decided that my wife, Lisa, should also enjoy the experience. I dashed inside and summoned her, exclaiming, “You’re not going to believe what I just saw!”
She was suitably surprised and impressed, and used her phone from a respectful purview to record a video of the snake creepily ascending a pine tree.
WARNING: DO NOT WATCH THIS VIDEO IF YOU SUFFER FROM HERPETOPHOBIA.
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After my wife went back inside, I continued to lop branches, keeping one eye on the snake, which had stretched out on a limb about 15 feet overhead.
I decided if it suddenly dropped down on me I would lose all interest in the great outdoors and take up an indoor hobby. Maybe The Day would hire me to write a needlepoint column.
Perhaps I was being irrational. It wasn’t as if I stumbled upon, say, a black mamba, one of the world’s most venomous reptiles that grows to more than 10 feet long, race along at 12 mph and strike without warning or provocation.
This was a common black snake, also known as a rat snake, which is not poisonous, generally avoids humans, and only bites if you do something stupid, such as try to pick it up or poke it with a stick. The worst thing that could happen is it would pee all over me.
Still, I would feel better if the snake stayed up in the tree while I finished my work.
A problem, though, was that every so often I had to break visual contact while I dragged a load of branches to a brush pile more than 100 yards away. Each time I scurried back, the first thing I did was check to make sure the snake hadn’t budged.
This went on for nearly an hour, at which point I detected my observer was getting restless, raising its head frequently for a better vantage point. The snake then writhed from the pine tree bough to the limb of an adjoining spruce — a graceful, acrobatic maneuver that brought it closer to the ground (and me).
I tensed. It was time to haul another load to the brush pile.
Taking a deep breath, I grabbed a stack of branches and sprinted at a pace that might have kept me ahead of a black mamba.
I returned, gasping, in less than a minute.
I quickly surveyed the ground and overhanging limbs. Nothing. The snake had made a clean getaway.
Now I faced a quandary. At least a dozen more trees required pruning, but the snake was on the loose.
Mercifully, the meteorological gods intervened.
The wind picked up, and what had been a gentle mist turned into a steady rain and, finally, a downpour.
I grabbed the loppers and bow saw, and made a beeline for the house.
As for the snake, I’m guessing that by now, with the onset of cold weather, it has burrowed into a den and likely won’t surface again until spring.
At least that’s what I tell myself.