Festooned

Corn snake

As a teenager, my first awareness of the power of contemporary poetry came from an encounter with D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake.”  So beautiful, evocative and seductive the language, but so dark the subject.  The darkness did not lie in the image or actions of the poem’s snake, but rather was revealed through the dark heart of a human, acting on irrational or culture-generated fear of what is not understood.  The poem, through the speaker, offered exposition and expiation. The poem, for this reader, opened a wonder-world of depth and meaning through words that has remained my fascination with poetry to this day.

Yesterday I held a snake; a beautiful sienna and gold corn snake – or red rat snake.  His name is Webster, and he is one of the many ‘animal ambassadors’ – creatures in the educational programming division of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where I am a volunteer.  This was my initiation into the opportunity to someday work with the Museum’s animals that I’ve spent more than a year observing and learning about as a Steward (docent) in the Museum’s Perkins Wildlife Center.

Webster was a revelation. As a child growing up in the then-wilds of the ex-urbs, I used to catch snakes; the yellow-striped gartersnake, the blue racer. So I was neither squeamish nor afraid when Wildlife Volunteer Peter brought out Webster and allowed me to hold him. But I had forgotten, or perhaps never paid close enough attention as a child, to how specifically alive these creatures are.  The cool, smooth silk of their skin covers a body that is not just sinuous in its movement, but pulsing in the most subtle but powerful way. It is a long, continuously flexing muscle of a being that eases itself peacefully through the world and transforms itself into a whiplash when threatened.

I’ve thought a lot about why so many humans fear snakes.  Setting aside the devil in the garden myth, I think in part it may be because their mode of transportation and engaging with the environment is so unlike anything else on land that we know – including ourselves.  Most of us – even insects – have legs and arms; appendages used to navigate, investigate and manipulate our shared world.  But a snake seems propelled by magic; an invisible force. And its means of defense, as well as how it uniquely knows the world, is through its mouth and tongue.  (Only venomous snakes have fangs.  Most snakes have teeth – like us.)

Holding Webster yesterday – or, rather, being held by him, since he pretty much took over the job of engaging with me – was a pure delight.  Gentle but insistent contractions and expansions moved his smooth, cool, jeweled body around mine; I found myself festooned with necklaces, bracelets and belts of red and ochre patterned satin.  Feeling and observing his movements I could think of nothing better than it was as if he were swimming; flowing gracefully and with ease through the air, across the surface of my body.  Quite delicious.

As sensuous as the experience may have been, I was also conscious of Webster’s vulnerability. At its thickest point, the snake’s body was thinner than my wrist. His head and neck, the width of a pencil.  I could have done him harm had I not been careful in unwrapping him from the looped tangle he’d arranged of himself through the straps of my backpack and the cord of my Museum credential.  Yesterday’s experience was my first in observing the experienced wildlife education volunteers, and the first step in doing what it will take to become one myself.

For the live animal show in the Museum’s Sears Hall yesterday, Peter also worked with Sweetie, the red-tailed hawk and Lancelot, the porcupine, in addition to Webster the corn snake.  The audience of children and their parents, young couples and older folk had the chance to learn a lot about these important, wild and fascinating creatures that share our world.  As Peter’s lecture and demonstration were coming to a close, everyone in the audience got to touch Webster’s cool, smooth, clean body – but not the hawk or the porcupine.

Perhaps the reality of who were the scarier, more dangerous animals in the room resonated with some in the assembled crowd.

* * * * *

Here’s two favorite poems on the subject, from D. H. Lawrence Snake, and Emily Dickinson A Narrow Fellow in the Grass

How To Sweep A Garden Path

garden pathPerhaps you know the story about the Zen master and the student, whose task was to sweep the garden path. Again and again the student washed and swept only to have the Master say it was not done properly. Finally, when the student was sufficiently confounded – and the path totally sanitized – the Master reached up and shook a branch and let a few leaves fall where they may on the stones.  The task was not to erase nature from the path, but to appreciate and make room for its contributions to our lives.

* * *

This morning, the hollow-reed plaint of a mourning dove, rusted trill of a redwing blackbird and the high, chittering glissando of finches quilt their calls in a syncopated patchwork of sound. Cardinals, robins, jays and wrens race along the invisible highways in the air above the lawn while the squirrels flex their bodies like furred muscles around the trunk of the tall cedar behind the house.

I’m sitting on my backyard deck in the hot-sun, cool air of an early May morning, watching spring arrive; everything pushing up, leafing out, letting go with abandon. Almost perfect. Almost.

Beneath the lively scene, underpinning the warm embrace of the sun and breeze, the faint odor of my resident skunk persists.  It’s gone, now, but not as I’d expected it would go – trapped and removed, to be released elsewhere, or humanely (I hoped) euthanized.

I thought I was being so clever – dusting the deck with flour for several days to track its coming and going so I could block the gaps after he – or she – had departed for the evening (see previous post). I thought I was being so clever.

DSC00639An urban critter-trapper laid baited ‘have-a-heart’ traps around the deck and reinforced the blocked entrances, except one where he affixed another cage. If the skunk was still under the deck, this would be its escape route where it would surely be trapped, he said, though he warned it might take a few days “if it’s trap-savvy.”

For weeks there persisted a mild, skunky odor around the deck. But we caught nothing. The odor faded then for a few days until one morning – 3 AM – I woke to a powerful and sickening smell. I knew instantly what had happened.

The deck was already part of the house when I bought it, so I had no idea how it was constructed. Although we’d left the skunk an escape route, it had settled in a section under the deck that was blocked from that exit.  We had trapped it in and it had died. Its fur was still glossy and soft when the trapper removed it from its nest under the deck.

If I am honest, I must admit having a descending order of tolerance for my yard’s co-habitants, with skunks at the bottom of the list. Still, I have remorse over my actions, however unknowing, that caused this painful end to a small life. It reminds me of a beautiful poem, Snake, by D. H. Lawrence in which the narrator regrets the pettiness of his reaction to a creature which, upon reflection, he recognizes as having its own beauty and nobility within the realm of its ‘otherness.’

* * *

finchesTwo days ago my resident house finches left me. It was a Saturday morning and I was in my customary seat in the living room watching the male and female busily feeding their chick in the nest they’d constructed in the wreath on my front door (previous post). But they kept hopping away to perch, chirping loudly, on the chairs on my porch.  Back and forth, nest to chair, while the chick stretched and flapped its tiny wings, chirping back.  This exciting display went on for a good quarter of an hour. Needing another cup of coffee, I left my post for a few minutes, and when I returned – no chick.  It had found its way out into the world.

Baby finch in nest through the screen door.

Baby finch in nest through the screen door.

I confess to feeling a bit bereft.  The finches had become part of my everyday.  I felt privileged to be a small part of their lives and to be so close to this little bit of nature, even though it meant giving up access to my front door for a few months.

I left the wreath with its nest in place through the week-end – just in case anyone came back, but there were no visitors. When I finally removed the wreath,  one tiny, unhatched egg lay at the bottom – pale blue, with a touch of fuzzy down stuck on. I’d read that house finches often use the same nest and can have up to three clutches a season, So I found a high, protected spot for the wreath  out of the human traffic pattern – again, just in case. 

DSC00655

Finch egg, dime and Cheerio.

* * *

The trick, I think, is to figure out how to live with nature – not against it. So hard to do both at the global level but also on the small stage of a suburban back yard. Last week I put in two small raised beds for herbs. I put up a fence and attached mylar ribbons to float in the breeze. Whether these measures will discourage deer, rabbits, chipmunks and birds I cannot now say. But I am preparing to accept that one morning I will look out my kitchen window and be greeted by a bed of headless herbs. If so, I may re-plant – or not, and try to remember to accept letting the leaves  fall on the swept path however they will.

 

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