The Deer and the Snake

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Cottonmouth photo of one I relocated out of my yard several years ago.

 

Today I saw the twin fawns that I first spotted six or eight weeks ago. They are still hanging out with their Mom, but the spots are gone, and there was another older deer with them. They’re getting wary of humans, and bolted before I could get a good photo of them. But at least I know they made it this far. After they leave their Mom’s side and get off on their own, or with a herd, I won’t know it’s them anymore. It’s very rare when I don’t see at least half a dozen deer, and not uncommon to see a dozen or more.

 

Animals get used to human activity, especially when the humans aren’t shooting at them. It’s against federal law to carry a gun on a federally funded construction site, and not too many guys want to be fired, then arrested, for shooting a deer out of season, at work. Fewer still employers will put up with that sort of behavior. But guys are stupid sometimes, when it comes to guns, and the deer are wary about getting too close. I whistle at the deer, so they’ll get used to the sound I make, and they’ll know it’s me. “Sit still, look pretty” is my tune of choice, and the deer seem to like it.

 

I’m deer watching today, eating my sandwich for lunch, trying to get them to come close enough for a good photo, when I see the snake. There’s a sizable Cottonmouth that hangs around a low place in the woods that’s flooded. I think it’s the same snake because, one, it is big, and two, for a big Cottonmouth, it still has a very distinct pattern, and most do not. The darker color is a deep olive green, and the lighter color is brownish. I think this is one of the most beautiful snakes I’ve seen, and as I ease my phone out of the pocket, two of the guys from the project come to see what progress I’m making with the deer.

 

This ruins the progress I’m making with the deer, and infinitely worse, it means they might try to kill the Cottonmouth, unless I stop them, and if I stop them, it’s going to cause friction. But this is a beautiful snake, and I’m not going to stand around and watch someone beat it to death in front of me. The snake is made entirely of the stealth. The scales of a Cottonmouth are what is known as “keeled” which means there’s a ridge running down the middle of the scale, and this refracts light. Snakes surprise people sometimes because of the way their scales scatter light, and so the snake seems to just appear out of nowhere. You have to see the right kind of light, or the lack of it, to see the snake. To me, the difference between the shadows cast by trees and the dark figure of the snake is clear. Neither of the guys has seen the snake, but the snake’s body language tells me it has seen them. Right now, it’s staying put, pretending to be the shadow of a shadow, and it’s working.

 

Throughout the years, I’ve learned the hard way people will kill snakes for no good reason at all. Toss in the snake is packing and they’ll hurt themselves trying to kill it. My theory is people feel inadequate when they’re in nature, and killing something makes them feel more in control and stronger. Which explains why so many people can’t handle being in the wild. The truth is, the ability to blend in, and survive with the environment, is the only way to live. Yet here they are, talking about shooting deer, even if they are unarmed, and there’s a venomous snake less than six feet away.

 

It’s an act of treason or sorts, a violation of man code, but while they’re standing there talking to me, friendly like, and we’re being social, I send their foreman a text and ask him when we’re going to be ready to pour concrete again. This prods him into looking around and realizing two of his men have wandered off. It gets them both into a little hot water, nothing serious, but he recalls them with a few words about wandering away from the project. I get to wander because I’m inspection, not construction, but my time on the fringe is limited, too. Slowly, ever so slowly, the snake begins to move. It eases back towards the woods, and the water, and I still cannot get a decent photo of it.

 

The temperature is mid-nineties, and the heat index is pushing everything into triple digit heat. The bridge deck’s bare steel skeleton radiates heat, and it becomes an oven. This is where it matters, where what I do makes a difference, and so I endure the heat, and make sure things are as they should be.

“So what in the fuck was that all about?”  the foreman asks.

“What?”

“You text me while those two guys are over there talking to you? They piss you off?” he asks.

“Not especially,” I reply, “but I was trying to get the deer to come closer.”

“Bullshit.”

“What?” I ask.

“You were looking back into the woods when I called them, there a moonshine still out there?” he laughs.

“If there is do you really want to know?” I reply. No one in their right mind walks up on a still in the woods. Oh yeah, it sounds like fun, like getting shot is fun.

“No, really, you got a reason for us not to be over there?” the foreman asks. “I can put a stop to it,”

“Do that,” I say. “And don’t ask why, okay?”

“You got it.” And the man knows that this far out in the woods, whatever it is, he doesn’t want to know, and he doesn’t want his guys messing with something out there. They have a job. It is not in the woods.

 

The Cottonmouth and the deer get a little bit more protection. I get another chance to photo the snake, and the deer. The snake gets a chance to live another day, and maybe have babies in a couple of months. That would explain the girth, actually.

 

If it sounds strange to you for me to go to that much trouble to save a snake, a Cottonmouth at that, you just met me. I get stranger, but at the end of the day, I’m closer to nature for it.

 

Take Care,

Mike

 

 

The Great Rattlesnake Caper of 1994

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Back in 1994, I was working surveying for a living, and it was quite surprising the lengths other surveyors went to in order to avoid snake bite. And I was also interested in all the stories those guys who had done it for decades told the new guys. Every snake found within a mile of a mud puddle was a moccasin and every snake not a moccasin was a copperhead. I pointed out every chance I could that no one in the building had ever been bitten, and no one who had ever worked there had either. But that didn’t stop these people from putting on snake chaps, snake proof boots, and using powered sulfur like a ten dollar hooker uses perfume.

About that time, a friend of mine and her roommate moved into an old farm house in Brooks County. The irony was one day I would buy a house not five miles from there because I would change jobs and work nearby. But her fourteen year old son, who was an insufferable know- it -all, claimed he saw a five foot long rattlesnake slither under the house. She called me and told me the story and I was assured of a few things. The first was her son didn’t take time to measure the snake so there was no way he knew it was five feet long. Most people who call me and tell me they’ve killed a six foot long rattlesnake discover about half their snake was stolen from them by the time I get there with a measuring tape. “They shrink after you kill them,” I’ve been told more than once. The next thing I was sure of is the son in question didn’t know a donkey from a hole in the ground, much less snake identification. And last, but not least, he was a lad prone to being a stranger to the truth. I saw an opportunity to impress a couple of women with my fearlessness and skill at snake extraction. At worst, there would be a free home cooked meal.

The house is an old 1850’s wood frame thing made of real wood and long iron nails. The foundation is a good two feet off the ground and they’ve nailed sheets of tin up as underpinning. For reasons I cannot explain, the sheets of tin have been overlapped so getting one of them disconnected means another has to be unattached. There is one piece used as an entrance, and it’s on the opposite side of the house where the alleged snake, excuse me, the alleged five feet long Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake was seen along with a unicorn. So I go under the house armed with a garden hoe, a flashlight, and my trusty snake bag, which I assume will contain a rat snake or a water snake before the end of the day.

The crawlspace of this house is, in and of itself, worthy of some tale. The foundation consists of columns of red bricks, likely fired from local clay, and even likely laid by slaves in the 1850’s. The bottom support beams are massive creatures, rough hewn and long, some of them single pieces of thick wooden timbers that are over fifty feet long. There’s ancient cloth insulation, and newer plastic wiring, as well as old metal pipes and newer PVC plumbing. There’s AC ducts to climb over or slither under, and for a few minutes I forget about the snake. I pick up a nail that’s the size of my thumb, and easily a foot long, but its rusted and brittle. This might have been lost the day the house was built, and uncovered while the ductwork was installed. Who knows how this nail was made, and by whom?

There is no snake. I make my way to where the serpent was supposed to have made his way under the tin, and damn. There’s a piece of tin with a small gap at the bottom and it looks like someone dragged an oak tree through that gap. In the soft and dry dirt under the house is a track that I can lay my hand in and not touch the sides with my pinky and thumb. My mind scrolls through the likely candidates of who could have made a track like that in South Georgia and none of them make me feel good about being under a house with a flashlight and a garden hoe.

I follow the track about ten feet and it goes under a duct, and if I want to see what’s on the other side, I have to crawl over the duct. I shine the flashlight over the duct and just like in the horror movies, the flashlight dims suddenly, and threatens to die.

In my mind I can see me going over that duct and meeting the snake who left that track. “What’cha doing with that hoe…boy?”

 

It is time to get the hell out from under that house. I bang on the nearest piece of time and very calmly yell that I need to exit, forthwith.

“Why?” asks one of the women.

“Because there is a damn big snake under this house!” I very calmly yell.

“You knew that, didn’t you?” The other woman replies, “And wwe’ll have to take down two pieces!”

“We will discuss it later,” I say, with verve and no hint of cardiac arrest.

Now at this point, I may relate to you their version of this story is vastly different than my own. I was not scared, just concerned, but they claim, dubiously, that my voice rose with each sentence and I threated to kick my way out from under the house and went through a religious conversion, twice.

It may have been a snake, even a big snake, possibly a very large rattlesnake, but it was still just a snake. And I’m not under the house with it as I write. That helps.

 

I got the home cooked meal and more crow than I cared to eat. I also informed them that I was ill equipped to hunt a snake that big, yet I would give it thought, and come up with a plan, which meant I was not going after the snake under the house, ever.

The snake was never seen again, of course, but the legend of the hunt lives on. The Great Rattlesnake Episode has been repeated many times in front of many bonfires over the years, and now, at least you have heard the truth, in as much as such a thing exists.

 

Take Care,

Mike