Saturday, August 20, 2011

Snakes and shovels

Our house is in the Echo Hills area of Lewiston. It’s snake country. I notched another kill on the shovel tonight after I dispatched the slithering serpent there to the left.

It's been a while between kills, though. We'd gotten used to not seeing them around, so it's still a shock when one starts buzzing at you. The kids play outside all the time, and our dog Fletcher is outside a lot too.

A few summers back I notched no fewer than 13 kills on my shovel, and buried 13 rattlesnake heads in the back yard with the very same shovel. My neighbors killed some snakes too. Debbie killed two (her stories of snake warfare were like epic tales of battle told around a campfire). Nigel killed six or seven (he liked to go door to door and display the pissed off snakes still wiggling, secured in clamps; he kept the tails). And Jason bagged a couple (he preferred a pellet gun with an attached high powered scope to dispatch his fanged quarry from a distance). Notches were my trophies, displayed right there on my trusty shovel, like a World War II fighter ace displays kills on a plane’s fuselage. We agreed that a den had obviously been disrupted that spring when a new home was built above us on the hillside, accounting for higher than average snake numbers.

My kids received a quick education in snake recognition: 1) buzzing, coiled, head like a balled up fist, pissed off: rattlesnake; 2) slender, yellowish, skinny head, normal tail: bull snake. Either way, get dad. Bull snakes control rodent populations and occasionally hunt rattlesnakes; we spared them and offered complimentary relocation.

One evening the sun was setting. Long shadows extended like blankets across the road as my kids and I spent some time together in the front yard. We liked to play catch, soccer, tag, or whatever. I noticed three robins in the road and went back to playing.

A couple minutes passed and the robins were still in the road chirping, but more like barking dogs than musically like they often do. That’s when I saw the snake. The birds had formed a triangle around it like a zone defense, keeping their distance but nonetheless shadowing it all the way across the street, driving the deaf reptile like cowboys drive a stray steer. I hadn’t noticed the deadly snake before. The asphalt and diminished light served to conceal it from sight. The robins were arranged on the road in such a way as to draw my eye into the middle of their formation, to the venomous snake slithering across the road.

So I grabbed my shovel and applied the business end to the serpent’s head, clobbering it a few times and then methodically slicing its head off with the dull edge of the spade. Not a quick and clean cut like King Louis the XVI’s and Marie Antoinette’s guillotine, however sufficient enough for the purposes at hand. The buzzing tip at the other end lost most of its prior intensity, but managed to give a few more half conscious and dazed reports, refusing to die, and then it was over. It’s important to separate the head from a poisonous snake and bury it; dogs rifle through trash cans and still risk getting punctured by the venomous fangs, and possibly die.

Maybe it’s standard robin procedure when dealing with snakes––a tactic––but it felt like they were doing me a favor. The birds didn’t stick around to watch. Like classic heroes of yesteryear, they were long gone before they could be thanked personally. Of the 13 kills that summer, the birds and their odd behavior make that encounter stand out a little more than others. It was bad too. The snakes were in the driveway, on the road, in the plants, along the fence line, and in the grass. Thankfully, however, one snake at a time.

The venomous buzzworms are out there, you remind yourself—and especially your kids—but our senses dull when we don't see them that often. Today we got a reminder, and I'm thankful for the coiled up package it came in.