Steve and the Blacksnake

Spring Fundraiser 2015, Day Six

We’re barreling through this quarter’s fundraiser: here it is, Saturday already.

Dymphna and I have been at this routine for more than five years, but it still amazes me to watch it unfold every quarter. How is it possible to raise enough money in this manner to cover blogging expenses, much less have enough left over to live on? Yet we manage to do it, mostly, with some side work to fill in the gaps.

It seems strange, because just about every other journalistic enterprise — which is what this blog is — uses a business model that is totally different from this sort of crowdfunding. Unlike major commercial media outlets, which are funded entirely by advertisers, periodicals that offer political opinion usually publish under the umbrella of some sort of foundation, with subscriptions and advertising only covering part of their operating costs. Money trickles down from the endowment to the administrators, who set the editorial guidelines and pay the editors, writers, and production staff. A non-profit corporate structure, with management calling the tune.

Tip jarIn contrast, our quarterly blegs appeal directly to our readers, with no intervening layers of administrative bumf. Those who like what we do and feel moved to donate chip in, and there have been enough of y’all so far to allow us to barely scrape by.

It’s an improbable way to make a living, but somehow we manage to keep going. And even though we have to grind along at the edge of poverty most of the time, there is an uncommon satisfaction to the job: We have absolute editorial freedom.

There’s nobody out there who can threaten to cut off the money spigot if we fail to toe this or that editorial line. Except for our readers, of course, who can express their displeasure whenever they want to by neglecting to clink the tip cup on our sidebar.

This means that when a controversy like the recent one over Diana West and American Betrayal comes up, we’re not inhibited by the fear that our funding will dry up. In this particular case, quite the opposite was true. The vast majority of ordinary people seemed to agree with Ms. West (and not with the major “conservative” organs). In those situations our support actually increases when we stake out purportedly “extreme” positions.

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The theme of this week’s fundraiser is “Stories”, and this morning’s story involves an excursion into natural history.

I’ve been a reptile freak every since I was a little boy. We humans are born with an instinctual fear of snakes, but our natural aversive reaction can be overcome if we are made familiar with snakes and trained to handle them when we are very young.

That’s what happened to me. When I was four and five years old, we lived next door to a family with a boy who was much older than I was, and very dedicated to reptiles and amphibians. He introduced me to the joys of turtles, snakes, lizards, salamanders, frogs, and toads. And, most importantly, he taught me how to catch snakes.

The technique is fairly simple. When you see a snake in the underbrush and want to catch it, you don’t go about it directly. You look around and find two sturdy sticks, each about two feet long, one for each hand. If possible, the one held in the right hand should have a slight bend or branch at the end, to make it easier to pin the snake’s head. The stick in the left hand is used as a feint, to wave in front of the snake’s head while the other stick is brought slowly up behind him. The unsuspecting snake keeps his eyes on the waving stick, and maybe even strikes at it. When the moment is right, the second stick is brought suddenly and firmly down just behind the snake’s head, pinning him to the ground. Drop the second stick, grasp the neck and the back of his head, and then you can pick the snake up and let him coil around your arm.

I love to do this. I’ve caught hundreds of snakes this way, ranging from little garter snakes and grass snakes, all the way up to the biggest blacksnakes, which are the largest specimens in this part of the country. And I haven’t been bitten by a snake since I was nine or ten years old.

I haven’t done as much snake-hunting since I grew up, but if I happen upon a blacksnake and don’t have anything better to do, I’ll catch him just for the pleasure of holding him for a few minutes, and then let him go. I don’t attempt to catch copperheads, although I’m sure I could if necessary. I’m not afraid of poisonous snakes, but I treat them with prudent respect — I know the consequences of a copperhead bite.

The main characters in the following story are my stepson Steve and a large blacksnake — or, more properly, a black rat snake. Black rat snakes can grow to eight feet or so in length, and it’s not uncommon to find five- or six-foot specimens. When they’re that big, they’re surprisingly heavy. The experienced snake-handler has to be prepared to heft up quite a load of wriggling reptile when he grabs one of those.

The incident in question took place one summer in the early 1980s when Steve was about fourteen. He still lived with his father in those days, and used to come to visit us during the summers. Over the previous winter he had shot up, and was now quite a bit taller than I was, 75% of it in the legs. Definitely no longer a little kid.

I took him down to the river one hot August afternoon to swim at the little beach by the public boat ramp. It was a popular swimming spot in those days, and families from the surrounding area would come down to fish, swim, and picnic.

Steve and I were in the shade at the back of the beach, just below a grove of trees on the bank, when we heard someone yelling in fright. A couple of grown men tore out of the grove shouting that there was a snake in there!

A digression is necessary at this point to explain the relationship that country people have with snakes…

In the Piedmont region of Virginia, which is where we live, the average rural resident is terrified of snakes. In many cases the reaction verges on superstitious dread. And this is at least as true of the men as of the women; I’ve encountered more than one family in which the wife is the one who kills the snake with a shovel while the husband stands sweating and safe behind the screen door of the porch.

And these guys are good ol’ boys, mind you. They’re commonly referred to as “rednecks” by their detractors, and often even use the term themselves. They’re hard-drinking, hard-working, and tough. Most of them could break a weedy little geek like me in half with one hand.

Yet they run away screaming in terror when they see a snake. Very peculiar.

Steve knew about my predilection for snakes, so he followed me into the grove as I ran eagerly towards the snake. It was fine specimen of a black rat snake, and I used my usual technique to pin him and pick him up. The poor snake was not at all happy to be caught, and wrapped himself around my arm and torso as I hoisted him into the air. When I shook him free and held my arm out above my head, his tail dragged the ground, so he was at least six feet long.

I looked around at the frightened bathers and fishermen, and they were all standing a safe distance away, agog at this weird guy who was crazy enough to pick up a giant blacksnake.

I walked toward them holding the snake out and said, “Look at this guy! Isn’t he great?” They backed away even further. Some got into their pickups and shut the doors.

I laughed and turned to Steve. “Let’s take this snake to town; I want to show it to some people.”

There was an old washtub in the back of my station wagon, and a piece of plywood big enough to cover it. I put the snake in the tub with a brick on top of the plywood to hold it down. Then we got into the car for the eight-mile drive to the nearest little town.

We’d gone about halfway when Steve, who was sitting next to me on the passenger seat, let loose with a sudden shriek. I looked over and saw a snake head and about a foot of snake body protruding from under the seat, right next to Steve’s leg. It slithered up on the window side of Steve as I slowed down and pulled over onto the shoulder, but Steve wasn’t willing to wait until the car was motionless. He climbed over me and out the driver’s-side window, all eight feet or so of him (mostly leg). Fortunately, I had slowed down enough that he wasn’t hurt when he hit the ground.

He stood outside the car and waited while I got down on the floor and rooted around under the front seat. It took a long struggle to untangle the coils of the snake from around the springs and the metal stanchions of the seat. When I finally pulled him free, he was a little worse for the wear and tear, and probably left a few scales behind among the springs.

Steve watched me dubiously as I put the poor snake back in the tub and covered it more carefully this time, adding extra weight using whatever odds and ends I could find in the back seat.

Our arrival in town proved to be somewhat of an anticlimax. There were only a few people around, and most of them kept a healthy distance between themselves and me, although a few interested acquaintances came close enough to get a good look at the monster blacksnake.

After I carried him up the sidewalk to window of the café (where alarmed faces peered out at us), we returned to the car. I carefully secured him in his habitat before driving home. We kept chickens in those days, so I let him go a half a mile from the house — blacksnakes are notorious for preying on eggs and chicks.

Steve’s youthful experiences with snakes have left him less herpetophobic than most people, but he’s not as delighted as I am when he encounters a snake. Reptiles are an acquired taste, but that taste must be acquired at a very early age to blossom into true devotion.

A final note: my two most satisfying snake-related occasions involved an indigo snake and a hognose snake, respectively. The former is not native to this part of the country, but I was able to handle one at a commercial snake farm in Thurmont, Maryland when I was about ten. Indigo snakes are delightful iridescent creatures, mild-tempered and unlikely to bite, which is why the snake farm let visitors handle them. The one I picked up was bigger than any blacksnake I’ve ever held, probably eight feet long. But it was far more docile and easygoing than blacksnakes, which are among the nastiest of snakes.

The first and only time I ever ran across a hognose snake was more than thirty years later, just down the road from here. I was driving along and saw a snake sunning itself at the edge of someone’s driveway. I slowed down to take a look, and saw the distinctive brown-striped pattern. Not a copperhead, although hognose snakes are often killed as copperheads by people unfamiliar with the varieties of brown-striped snakes.

Hognose snakes are probably the most easygoing of all American species. Instead of striking, they roll over and pretend to be dead when approached closely by a human. At that point they can be picked up, and they never bite. When I got out to take a look at the snake, he played dead, so I knew that I had a hognose snake, which was also confirmed by his eponymous snout when I picked him up to have a closer look.

I was ecstatic — I had always wanted to catch a hognose snake, and here I had one at last! I was over forty by then, but I felt like a kid again. The owner of the nearby house was standing in his yard looking at me curiously, so I held up my prize and said, “Look! A hognose snake!”

He was not impressed.

“Baron,” I hear you say, “you’re daft. Just like your late mother-in-law, but at a much earlier age.”

You’re quite right, but still — it was “a day to recall when days are done,” as Al Stewart says.

As was the day when Steve climbed out the window of a moving car to get away from an escaped blacksnake.

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Yesterday’s gifts came in from:

Stateside: California, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Texas

Near Abroad: Canada

Far Abroad: Australia, Denmark, Germany, and the UK

The thank-you notes are trickling out now. I’ve done quite a few, but there are a lot left, so this stands as a preliminary collective thank-you to everyone who has donated so far.

The tip jar in the text above is just for decoration. To donate, click the tin cup on our sidebar, or the donate button, on the main page. If you prefer a monthly subscription, click the “subscribe” button.

7 thoughts on “Steve and the Blacksnake

  1. Baron, Found a couple of small ones in my garden, both dead, I’m afraid. The cats got to them first.

    There are cobras and all sorts here but we never see them, apart from in snake farms. I used to see a lot when I was in India..

    A few months ago we were driving home on the freeway through Hang Dong when a huge black coloured snake went across the road in front of us at some speed. Scared the hell out of me. Fortunately Kanya was driving. It was rush hour and the road was busy. Didn’t hit the snake.

  2. Your stories this week have been most enjoyable. I am not fond of snakes, but our son, as a boy, was not afraid of them because I managed not to scream when I saw one. He is still pretty fearless. He lives in mountain territory and has had some close encounters with mountain lions. . . adventure!

  3. I’ve never been afraid of snakes, but that could be because I grew up in Massachusetts, where the two species of poisonous snake are pretty rare. I’ve lived in New Hampshire the past 10 years and apparently we only have the one poisonous snake, the Timber Rattlesnake, which is rare and now protected.

    I think you are right, though, about having exposure to snakes at a young age to overcome natural aversion. I spent a great deal of time in the woods as a child, so the snakes, frogs, toads, and lizards were just part of the everyday fauna I encountered. I have a special fondness for frogs and toads, which I still enjoy “capturing”. I am delighted when I find one in my yard, and eager to show my 8 year old daughter. A couple of years ago, in early summer, we were in the backyard. We had just plopped ourselves down on the tiles of our tiny patio when we discovered that we were not alone. A medium-sized toad, with its backside against the house, was immobilized instead of trying to hop away at our arrival. We soon found out why: just two feet away, partially obscured by our grill, was a garter snake. My daughter and I backed away a bit to see how this scenario was going to play out, but the stand-off continued for some time. In the end, we scared away the snake because my loyalties lay with the toad. But it was an interesting nature lesson for my daughter.

  4. The B has gotten me trained enough so that when we find one in the yard, I leave it be. In fact I speak to it, explaining that I need it to eat the darn voles who are eating my plants and bulbs.

    One time I came upon a big black snake who was rather incapacitated: he was in the process of digesting a rabbit – I could see the rabbit’s foot hanging out. Bunny rabbits, aren’t they cute? And what a shame? NO. Those guys eat any parsley I plant, plus the tips of the raspberries if I forget to spray hot sauce on them.

    Meanwhile the deer – I think of them as large rodents – THEY eat the azaleas, daylilies and hosta. And then they lie down under the lilacs in herds of six or so, just lying back and enjoying the sunshine, dropping ticks where they sit. I ran out of Skydd, which is the only effective repellent I’ve found. I sprinkle it around and then follow with a hose end sprayer full of dilute hot sauce:

    Plantskydd Rabbits & Small Critters Organic Repellant 7lbs.

    This one is the most economical size -probably because they use something to make it clump into granules. But the liquid is too messy. Clogs the sprayer so you have to just mix it in a bucket with an old broom and kind of fling it around in the beds. This granular form, sprinkled on top of the mulch two or three times a season seems to be enough. Ever since the B got a tick bite (and some tick borne illness) while mowing, I’ve been more diligent.

    Of course if y’all click on any of our Amazon books and end up buying something we get a small bit back. It adds up enough to pay for items I already order, vitamins and such. I know some people don’t like Amazon for various reasons, but if shopping is not an option due to fatigue, ordering on line is a life-saver, esp. since you can return stuff. There’s a learning curve on how to interpret the validity of the reviews.

    Sometimes I’ll leave a review on an item that proves to be particularly helpful. But they all publish under the Baron’s name…not so good if they’re asking “him” how he likes those red leggings or the camisole.

  5. As a kid growing up in the Ozarks, I used that stick method to catch young water moccasins, but I still have a natural fear-reaction if I come unexpectedly upon a snake.

    Jeffery Hodges

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  6. Humans are instinctively afraid of snakes, spiders, and a host of other things that are commonly venomous enough to seriously harm or kill small children that don’t know better than to touch/eat them. But most of the typical reaction is culturally reinforced. On the other hand, that exaggerated reaction itself tends to provoke a countervailing response in those sufficiently familiar with the particular subject to find it non-threatening. It can almost seem like a deliberately comical act, and in any case it’s amusing to see people reacting with unrestrained terror of something that is ‘clearly’ harmless.

    Then again, that humorous affect can lead to the tragic consequence of losing an appreciation for real danger. In the case of snakes or spiders, this usually has a limited effect because disregard for real danger from venomous specimens usually only harms the person showing that disregard. But in other cases the results can be more serious. For instance, humans are also instinctively averse to the fecal waste of other humans. Sometimes a child gets the idea that it is funny to use their own fecal matter to tease or threaten other children, due to the fact that the instinctive aversion to one’s own waste is far weaker. If this behavior is not promptly and properly suppressed, it can become a lasting habit.

    I caught a nephew doing this a while ago, and my response was to inform him (in language appropriate to his age, and tone appropriate to his transgression) that unhygienic disposal of fecal matter had killed more humans through-out history than any other human action. That rather caught my sister and her husband off-guard, it also made my nephew cry quite a bit. In my defense, I stepped in only after my nephew egregiously disregarded the attempt by both his parents to correct his misbehavior. Also, I doubt that any of my sister’s children will be so cavalier about basic hygiene for quite some time. Alas, they may as a result seem somewhat fun-impaired when it comes to the appreciation of potty-humor, which is seeing a significant resurgence in mass culture.

    As a result of this sort of incident, my sister’s children generally understand that disobeying their parents isn’t a good idea at the best of times, and should be avoided at all costs when I’m around. So far that’s worked out for the best. She hasn’t yet started making them catch and eat snakes, at least. Though they did go fishing the other day with a “firm determination” to cook and eat any fish they caught (they didn’t catch any, though).

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