Monday, December 29, 2008

The Snake, The Egg, And I

My chicken coop is a haven of peace and contentment, and gathering eggs is my favorite job. The sun streams through the dusty window, a couple of hens walk around debating what to do next—scratch some litter, lay an egg? Chatting to them in a friendly tone, I reach into the nests, retrieve the morning's harvest and place it in my basket.

But one day I walked into the coop and found, sitting on a clutch of rosy-brown eggs, not a hen, but a snake. This was no pencil-thin garter snake, but a full-grown black snake, sleeWoman Reprimanding Snakek and shiny and as big around as a pitchfork handle. She was draped over the clutch like a skein, and she had an egg in her mouth. To get the egg into her mouth she had had to dislocate her jaw (snakes are able to do this when they want to eat something really big), and there she sat, her tiny head barely visible around the huge egg, staring at me and trying hard to swallow.

I am not particularly brave, but when I saw that snake helping herself to my eggs, I was outraged. I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the spaghetti tongs. Back in the coop I grasped the snake behind her head with the tongs and pried the egg from her jaws with my other hand. Then I carried her to the woods behind the coop, where she disappeared without a sound. I took the eggs to the house, put them in the fridge, and trembled a little.

Next morning, the snake was back on the nest.

This time she had managed to swallow an egg, and I could see its shape just behind her head, starting its slow descent down her body. The nerve! I exclaimed. I didn't run for the tongs, but grabbed the snake with my bare hand and took off for the woods. I put her down firmly and told her not to come back.

But she did, and when I found her on the nest again I took hold of her and hurled her as hard as I could into the woods. And that time she stayed away.

A day later, the mice arrived. At first there was only one, an adorable little field mouse straight out of Beatrix Potter, all ears and shiny eyes, watching me as I refilled the hens' feeder. The next day there were two, scurrying along the top of a hay bale. The third day—I could smell them as soon as I entered the coop--there were mice everywhere, running on the windowsill, scrabbling on the floor, leaving droppings on everything.


What, I wondered, was behind this plague? It took me a while to put two and two together, but I eventually figured out that the mice had moved in because the snake had moved out. In my ignorance, I had chased away the heaven-sent, poison-free, ecologically sound solution to my mouse problem, and the mice knew it.

Too late I repented my callous treatment of my friend, the black snake. She stayed away a long time, and during that period I fought the mice with traps and poison and verbal abuse, and lost.

But next spring the dog found a dried-out snake skin of impressive length under a bush. A couple of days later, the mice took off. And once again I found the snake in the nest, looking groomed and shiny in her brand-new skin.

This time I welcomed her. So what if some mornings she's draped over the eggs like a broody hen? I chat to her softly and she lets me push aside her coils, occasionally darting her tongue at me, the way a hen will make pecking motions when you get the eggs out from under her.

The snake and I have made peace with each other, and she makes herself at home in my corner of paradise. And isn't that what the real Paradise was all about--creatures living in harmony with each other, and humans knowing enough to let Nature take her course?

5 comments :

  1. Wow. I'm just dazzled by that story. I'm so glad she found her way back. Do you really think it's the same snake? I've started being very kind to spiders, talking to them, helping them back outside. I am not, however, a friend of ants, especially fire ants, which we have down here in abundance. I have tried to reason with them, but I can't break through their hive mentality. I have told the ant spirits that I am an enemy, and I back up my words with poison. But spiders? Live and let live.

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  2. i read this and i am certain that i could never be a farmer after all. but i love the story, and the truth of it.

    have you read ron rash's newest novel, "serena"? your snake could have come from that book.

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  3. Craig, I, on the other hand, am not so sure about spiders...those great big ones...just thinking about them makes my hair stand on end, though I understand they're sacred to the Goddess. We get tons of tiny ants in the spring. We spritz them with water with a little bit of detergent, which not only kills them but ERASES THEIR SCENT TRAILS! It's not a total remedy, but it helps.

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  4. Laurie, Farmer? I'm no farmer, just a gardening, chicken-keeping dilettante in love with the idea of self-sufficiency. Farmers are out in the frozen dawn delivering calves and things. I used to have a couple of goats and make pretty good cheese (so my friends tell me), but dealing with a gallon of milk every day, Sundays included, almost did me in.

    (Now that I've read the credits on your Christmas story I understand why you have all these books to recommend.)

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  5. I love the illustration, and I'm so glad there was a happy ending for the snake. (I am a little partial to them, for some reason.)

    Wouldn't it be cool if we could dislocate our jaws to eat something really big? Just think what we'd all look like 'round the holidays!

    Love this story.

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