Meditations on snakes

By Kristen Lindquist | Apr 12, 2009

With the official arrival of spring and (slightly) warmer days, snakes emerge from their dens to sun themselves on trails and exposed ledges. The garter snake, the most common of Maine’s snake species, is usually the first snake to untangle itself from a hibernating ball of fellow snakes and come out into the vernal light. I’ve come across garter snakes in very early spring, warming themselves in sunny patches of dry leaves that are otherwise still surrounded by snow. As the increasing warmth and light reinvigorates us warm-blooded animals, imagine how it feels for a reptile soaking up the sun and feeling heat in its body for the first time in months.

Although many people fear snakes, when I hear a rustle trailside and see that long tail disappearing into the leaves, I find it oddly comforting that a snake is near. It’s a pleasure similar to hearing a familiar bird singing in the woods around me—I’m not walking this path unaccompanied, and the creature nearby, while not my friend, is not going to harm me. I don’t often try to catch a garter snake because it can give you a nasty bite (I know this from experience) and may also exude a smelly secretion onto your hands (also, experience). I simply appreciate its presence and the beauty of its intricately patterned length, its bright eyes, and the way its little red forked tongue flicks to taste the air around it.

Because it continually sheds its skin, the snake was a symbol of resurrection and renewal for many ancient cultures and is thus a perfect symbol for spring. Along those lines, the smooth green snake, with its glossy skin the color of fresh spring grass, might be our best representative of this season when green returns to our landscape. My favorite snake, the smooth green snake coils itself around your wrist when held, seemingly without fear. Its scales are keel-less, meaning that it truly feels smooth as silk. This inviting tactile characteristic, combined with its small size and mellow behavior, make it the perfect species to introduce to children, who often seem to be afraid of snakes. Is this a fear instilled in them by our culture, and reinforced by such horror movies as “Anaconda” and “Snakes on a Plane”?

I have often come across the smooth green snake and the similarly non-aggressive redbelly snake out on Monhegan Island. And last fall on the island, I came across a writhing ball of three garter snakes engaged in what looked like a ménage a trois in a tree. Boats ferry a lot of hidden live cargo, as well as firewood, topsoil or potted plants in which a snake could be unknowingly contained, so it’s not a great mystery how these various species might have ended up out there—but each time I find a snake on Monhegan, I marvel they exist on an island that doesn’t have, for example, squirrels.

A few summers ago a friend called to tell me she had just seen what she thought was a rattlesnake while hiking along the Ragged Mountain ridgeline trail in Hope. We had both heard the lore that Maine is the only state without poisonous snakes, so she was excited about the possibility that she might have seen a rattlesnake out of its range. She described the body pattern as “not a garter snake” but similar to rattlesnakes she had seen out west, and said that the snake, which had been sunning itself on the trail, curled up when she approached it and audibly rattled its tail.

Curiosity piqued, I consulted my indispensable copy of "Maine Amphibians and Reptiles," published in 1999 by University of Maine Press (a must-have for anyone interested in Maine’s natural history). The book confirmed that the timber rattlesnake was “likely extirpated” in Maine—according to old records, it used to inhabit two Rattlesnake Mountains in small numbers, among other western Maine sites, but has not been verifiably seen in Maine in recent times. But I also came across this telling line, describing the decidedly non-venomous milk snake: “Milk snakes bear a superficial resemblance to rattlesnakes and will even shake their tail in dry leaves to produce a rattling sound.” Although this information made her discovery much less exciting on a certain level—she hadn’t actually encountered something rare or potentially dangerous—we were both fascinated by the idea of a harmless Maine snake playing rattler. Even on a well-trodden trail you hike all the time, there’s still the possibility of encountering something new and wonderful.

The milk snake is one of Maine’s most strikingly colorful snakes. Patterned with large reddish-brown blotches surrounded by black on a lighter tan-gray body and a black-and-white checkerboard on the belly, the snake looks dramatic, even if not poisonous. I once found a road-killed young milk snake whose little blotches were ruby red, things of real beauty. The milk snake’s coloration more closely resembles that of the copperhead than the rattlesnake, but the milk’s false rattle trick makes anyone look twice. (In addition, the rattlesnake has a large, wedge-shaped head, and you can see real rattles on the end of its tail.) Sometimes found in old barnyards, the milk snake gets its name from the old belief that it sucked milk from cows, although my guide states firmly that “the milk snake has no interest in cattle or their milk.”

My husband, who has a particular fondness for snakes, tells me of the hours he spent as a boy roaming the woods and fields of Scarborough looking under rocks and dead trees for the creatures. Now as we drive around his hometown, he will point out an industrial park or a housing development that used to be those woods or fields in which he played. Seeing such development superimposed over the setting of my husband’s childhood nature explorations makes me sad for the children who won’t be able to share the experience he so enjoyed. “Nature deficit disorder” is a real concept these days not just because many kids no longer get outside—let alone spend entire days roaming the woods alone as my husband and I both used to in our different parts of Maine—but also because the places where they might do so are now gone. Every time I walk a local trail, especially a trail that I have hiked on since I was a kid, I feel fortunate that such places still exist in my hometown, that I can still enjoy the accompaniment of that trailside birdsong or rustle in the leaves of a sunning snake.
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