Snakes Hiding in the Garden
Ever since that celebrated spot of trouble in Eden, snakes have had something of a bum rap in the garden.
A small one crossed my path last Sunday morning as I was walking home from church to finish planting my terrace garden. But more on this unexpected morning drama in a moment.
The principal charm of the rambling old house we occupy in Weymouth Heights, at least where this minority opinion is concerned, is a crumbling terrace presided over by a pair of well-trained Savannah hollies out back. The trees, gravid with red berries that attract scores of songbirds, arch gracefully over a flagstone oval where some ambitious soul many years ago constructed long border planters made of brick.
On the warmest days, the terrace offers deep shade and cool comfort to man, beast and bird alike. The pleasure I derive sitting there in my ancient Adirondack chair, refreshment in hand, resting my bones after a day's honest labor, soaking up the sights and smells of a Sandhills dusk, simply cannot be overstated. Several weeks back, I noticed a pair of courting cardinals building a small nest high up in the holly trees.
What a change a year makes. When we moved to the house in mid-May of last year, the yard was already as dead as a parking lot after the circus has left town, and the terrace planters were clogged with long-dead perennials and weeds. It took me an afternoon just to clean them out. By then, owing to drought and long neglect, the yard was really beyond saving for the year. So I concentrated primarily on trying to coax the terrace garden back to life.
The first thing I did was plant an elderly pair of Korean hostas that came from my blue garden in Maine. When the sale of our place up there was finalized in the first week of May, I briefly considered an ambitious scheme of digging up my favorite plants and hauling them from Maine to Carolina. In the end, however, only a pair of robust and reliable hosta plants -- which grew as large as small Volkswagens and never failed to astonish guests to my garden in Maine's high summer -- wound up making the long journey south. Here's how it happened.
One year ago this week, the moving truck came and loaded up our household things and shoved off with professional dispatch. I, suddenly the former homeowner and chief grounds custodian, forswearing sentimentality, made a private valedictory stroll around the property to say goodbye to a garden I'd spent almost two decades cursing, cajoling, and enjoying far more than I realized until that very moment.
I said goodbye to the newly installed northern redbuds, which kindly blossomed for the first time that final Yankee spring.
I bid adieu to my Oriental and philosopher gardens and my slightly rednecky Roman pergola, where the roses bloomed extravagantly in late June and I battled Kamikaze Japanese beetles more summers than I care to recall. So long, Endless Summer hydrangeas, prairie fire crabs, Sargentii pears. I thanked several beds of stunning daylilies and Asian exotics I'd collected from two dozen trips up and down the East Coast, including my favorites which came from a field over in neighboring Scotland County.
I walked to the back of the property at the forest's edge, where many years ago I made a devil's bargain with a family of white-tailed deer, creating a clearing where I would feed them bags of sorghum during the hardest winter nights and planting several hosta for their summer dining pleasure. Laugh if you will, but they never advanced upon the house, keeping their end of the bargain for decades.
After a final walk through the empty house, pausing to look at the kitchen door frame where we measured the yearly growth of four children with dated pencil marks, I walked out and said goodbye to the family of yellow-banded garter snakes that inhabited the knee-high stone walls I had constructed to frame the front garden where my amazing hosta grew. A couple of the newborn snakes were sunning themselves on the warming stones, and not far away a lazily coiled larger snake I assumed might be their mama was keeping a watchful eye.
Just about every ancient civilization -- including early Christians -- regarded snakes in the garden as sacred creatures, a sign of good fortune, a living connection between God and man, but I've always seen them more as a living measure of a garden's vitality and general environmental health.
At that moment, as I looked at the baby banded garters, I realized that for the first time in almost 20 years I wouldn't be getting filthy-dirty that spring. I always called May the "official start of getting-dirty season in Maine."
On a brazen impulse, a defiant act of fare-thee-well, I fetched an English spade I always carry in my car for emergency plant excavations and popped a couple of the biggest hosta straight out of their beds and into the back of my car. The snakes hardly moved, accustomed as they were to being left alone by lazy golden retrievers.
As I drove off, taking only one brief backward glance, I wished my old garden and the peaceable kingdom around it continued tranquility and good summer rain, hoping the new owners, an older couple who owned Dobermans and drove a large motor home, might enjoy it half as much as the fool who made it.
Helpful Corn Snakes
Which brings me round to last Sunday morning on Orchard Street. I glanced down, and there was a very young snake wiggling with some difficulty across a very warm pavement, heading for a cool thicket of bamboo a dozen feet away. A car had just passed directly over it, nearly turning it to snake jelly.
Judging by its markings and rounded head, I guessed it to be a newly hatched corn snake -- which some folks mistake for a copperhead but which is, in fact, an excellent critter to have in or near your garden. It keeps the rodent population in check and is known to chase off and even kill copperheads. Or so my rural kinfolk always claimed. For years in the late autumn, a popular story went, my eccentric Great-Uncle Romney used to place his pet corn snake under his house for the winter, just to keep the field-mouse traffic to a minimum.
In any case, I was more than happy to help the young fellow across the road, remembering the domestic excitement unleashed last summer when I discovered a pair of much larger reptiles in one of the basement's grated window wells as I was getting down to work on the terrace garden.
Three feet down lay a large pine snake that turned out to be deceased, cause of death unknown, though nearby was a large black snake that turned out to be a black hognose snake, prompting me to wonder if they'd been engaged in a battle for turf. Rambling old houses like ours are luxury hotels for rodents, I'm guessing, and the noble pine snake is something of an endangered species in the Sandhills. I regretted his passing, even as I toted him to a final resting spot beneath of an eruption of wild phlox and trumpet vine.
After that, No. 2 Son and I carefully lifted out the victorious hognose and carried him in a bucket deep into Weymouth forest, sending him on his way near a creek bed in a sylvan glade where some older trees had fallen over.
He seemed, on the whole, rather pleased to find himself in such an unexpected Eden, slithering away to find new adventures or at least supper, though perhaps I overestimate his mood. As we watched him glide away, I suddenly wondered if perhaps I shouldn't have actually left him alone to do his business around our basement windows, policing the place of more unpleasant intruders. Last summer there were several reports of copperheads in the neighborhood. I doubt I'll be as charitable if I happen upon one of them.
Miracle of Life
Last Sunday, after assisting the young corn snake across the street, I walked on home and got gloriously filthy-dirty planting a dozen hosta, iris and daylily plants. It was almost like old times in my blue garden.
Up in the branches of the Savannah hollies, meanwhile, the struggle for new life could also be heard in the form of newborn cardinals peeping for their doting parents, who were busy ferrying insects to the hungry mouths and warning Rufus the cat to stay clear of the nursery. He seems to be getting the message. But my wife netted off the nest just to be on the safe side.
As you read this, I'm way up in Vermont this weekend visiting my college-girl daughter, who was born the year I first planted the same hosta plants that crossed eight Eastern states and came up as robustly as ever in my new Southern terrace garden this spring.
That all seems rather miraculous to me, looking back, how quickly babes that are born or hatched somehow survive the perils of this world to grow up and walk or fly or slither away on their own.
Whatever else is true, I expect to be back in my Adirondack chair by dusk on Monday, to settle in with something cool in hand and watch all of this brave new life happening around me.
Jim Dodson, The Pilot's Sunday essayist, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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