“A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides -
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is -
The Grass divides as with a Comb,
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on….”
— From “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” by Emily Dickinson
October is the month of honking geese, falling leaves, golden hillsides and, this year, of almost summertime warmth. Some mornings the fall fog is thick, but quickly dissipates as the rising sun warms the air. Other mornings the woods are aglow with golden sunlight slicing through the turning leaves.
Alas, birds are few and far between. A hidden flock of robins cluck and chuck from high up in the treetops. Crows caw, pileated woodpeckers shriek, the kingfisher rattles and the great blue heron harshly fraaaacks as it wings its way across the pond. Most prevalent these not-so-early mornings are flocks of subtly colored cedar waxwings constantly flying out, snagging bugs and then returning to the same tall leafless tree by the pond.
Nature is constantly changing. As in previous Octobers, small brown snakes lie among the fallen leaves on the road, unfortunately deceased. Some have talon marks and wounds; other just appear to have been run over. Why the road? Why October? They must be preparing to hibernate, but our changing weather patterns keep them active. Since they’re cold-blooded, they slither from the under chilly damp leaves to warm up on the heat absorbing road. A warm snake is a fast snake!
Three kinds — the northern ringed snake, the northern brown snake and the red-bellied snake — keep showing up at this time of the year. All three are rather small, none longer than a foot, and are fairly easy to identify. The ringed snake has a yellowish ring behind the head. The red-bellied is, well, red-bellied, though the color may range from pale pink or orange to absolutely scarlet. The largest, the brown snake, also know as De Kay’s snake, is brownish with pale strips and mottling in and among the stripes. Sadly, never have I come across any of these three species of snakes alive.
Snakes or serpents are the most feared animal in the world, even though most are harmless and would slink away when startled or disturbed rather than confront an interloper. All snakes have elongated bodies, no eyelids, no external ears. All have teeth, but only the venomous ones have fangs. All are carnivorous and have special jaw bones that enable them to open their mouths wide enough to swallow large prey.
All are good swimmers and tree climbers, though only a few of ours take to branches. All hibernate. That forked, flicking tongue is not a threat. Snakes remove particulate from the air with the tongue and rub it against the Jacobson organ in the mouth when searching for food, enabling the snake to smell its way through the world. Snakes mate in the springtime and may be viviparous (live births) or oviparous (lay eggs). In either case, the adults have absolutely nothing to do with their offspring ever. Nary a granny snake or a nanny snake among them.
Snakes slough off or shed their skin as they grow. They are not reborn anew each time; this merely reflects the amplitude of food sources. The more the snake eats, the bigger it grows and must shake off that constraining skin. Think different sizes of jeans in your closet.
Seventeen species of snakes secretly live among us here in the Northeast — in gardens, in woods, in ponds, under bushes, under rocks, in barns or abandoned buildings. Of these, only three are venomous: the timber rattler, the northern cottonmouth and the endangered eastern massasauga, all of which dwell in rather remote areas.
People have believed the weirdest things about snakes. They are not slimy. They are covered with smooth, protective, overlapping scales. Mortally wounded snakes do not wait until sunset to die. Milk snakes do not milk cows ... or goats or sheep. None has the ability to hypnotize.
Snakes are believed to be good or bad — or both. Clever and wise or is it deceiver and trickster? Mostly in these sectarian days, they are thought of by the public as bad, bad, bad, even though they control insect and rodent populations. In Celtic culture, snakes are both “pests and treasures.” St. Patrick is said to have rid Ireland of snakes, but did he travel to New Zealand, Hawaii, Greenland and Iceland to perform the same service? These countries have no snakes either. Think island …
Cultures from our earliest civilizations have revered snakes as important spirits or gods. These long, slender animals resemble an umbilical cord and many believed they connected all humanity to Mother Earth. The Hopis believe the snake was a god of fertility, one to whom they offer ceremonies and festivals for continued renewal of life and crops. The Egyptian then Greek snake god, Ouroboros, eating its own tail, represents eternal life.
The Greeks had Gorgons, snake women. The Chinese believed in Bai Suzhen (Madame White), a woman demon in the form of a snake that lived under water. The Aztecs have Quetzalcoatl, the feathered rattlesnake god, who was not only the god of wind, but also of learning, agriculture and science. Snakes loom way larger in myth than in reality.
The Greco-Roman symbol of medicine, the caduceus, represents health and healing. The staff of Hermes was first used by Asclepius, a Greek doctor who was elevated to the status of a god. Hermes, that winged messenger, was the god of magic, diplomacy, rhetoric, inventions and discoveries as well as being the protector of merchants. Let’s hope the modern medicine man believes in the rod of Asclepius more than the Hermes’ wand of commerce.
May many more slender brown fellows hasten to hibernate than to slowly creep onto the road to meet an untimely death.