Friday, August 24, 2007

Snakes in the garden

As far as I’m concerned, a garden isn’t much of a garden without snakes. The first garden had snakes, so why shouldn’t ours, too? Of course, the first garden had nudists, too, and I sometimes regret that shortcoming in my garden. In one of his stories, Beverley Nichols describes – in a rather restrained way, given the possibilities – the two strong men he hired for a day to move heavy porphyry urns in his garden. He seems to have enjoyed his supervisory function a bit too much. When he wasn’t ogling his garden help, Nichols was riding around town coaxing Dame Nellie Melba to trill for him.

There are six species of snake which turn up now and then in this garden: black rat snake, northern ring-neck snake, northern brown snake, eastern garter snake, northern water snake and worm snake. I have not given up hope that the local copperhead population still hangs on, but I have not seen any evidence of that in many years. Encounters with the worm snake, a largely fossorial species, are sporadic. The northern water snakes and eastern garter snakes come and go, probably in response to the population density of breakfast, lunch and dinner. The black rat snakes are resident, very literally so – I find their shed skins in the attic. The northern ring-neck snake and northern brown snake are also probably resident. Both are small. To find the ring-neck snakes, turn over any flat objects on the ground. In late August, the young ones sometimes turn up in the basement, often tangled up in a spider web. The brown snakes turn up here and there when I’m down close to the ground or scooping up handfuls of leaves.

I take the presence of snakes in the garden as a sign of its health: the garden supports a population of toads and an occasional frog wanders in and stays awhile. Of birds, what can I say? How about this: we go through several hundred pounds of bird seed a year. Our black snakes enjoy only the plumpest, much pampered birds. No pesticides or herbicides here, thank you. Yes, there are more weeds than most self-respecting gardeners would tolerate. But how many gardeners can expect to encounter six different sorts of snake in the course of the year?

In the photograph, you see what might be birds of a feather flocking together: the eastern garter snake at the base of the dragon arum, Dracunculus vulgaris.

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