Arriving home the other afternoon by car, I noticed an elongated object straddling the lawn and driveway in front of our house. “Is that a snake?” I asked my alluring wife, whose fondness for such creatures is approximately the same as my own. But before she could answer, or even focus on the spectacle, I could see that it was: an eastern ratsnake, in fact, a few feet in length, recently emerged from hibernation and probably in search of a mate.
Snakes, while hardly ubiquitous, are not uncommon where I live in Northern Virginia; and since a little more than a third of my property is woodland, bisected by a meandering stream, I have encountered my share of serpents over the years. We spread mulch around our boxwood bushes, which they seem to savor, and there are plenty of rodents, especially mice, in the vicinity to keep them nourished.
I should point out, at this juncture, that I am not one of those people whose fondness for the natural world includes a special affinity for snakes: I find them as creepy and disconcerting as the vast majority of humans seem to do. But where I live, at least, the specimens are nonvenomous and, no doubt, beneficial to the local ecology. Accordingly, I tend to observe a live-and-let-live policy with regard to the snakes on my property; in any event, they are more frightened of me than I of them, and slither away.
Still, whenever I encounter one (as I did the other day), I am invariably reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake.” It is set in the warm Sicilian countryside, and Lawrence is about to approach a trough to collect some water for breakfast when he notices that a snake has beaten him to it. After observing its movements for a minute or two (He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do / And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do), he reflects that
… voices in me said, If you were a man,
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone to learn that, after much observation and discussion, Lawrence does not beat the snake; but, being Lawrence, he is torn between admiration for what he perceives to be one of nature’s noblemen and self-loathing for his instinct to kill it. In frustration, he tosses a log at the snake, which beats a hasty retreat—and Lawrence is especially ashamed of responding to the voices of my accursed human education. He wishes the snake would return so that he might make amends: And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords / Of life. / And I have something to expiate: / A pettiness.
D.H. Lawrence’s train of thought is reflected in me only in the sense that, depending on the circumstances, I equivocate about what to do. As I say, my customary habit is to leave snakes alone; but there is one mitigating factor, especially at this time of year. Our yard is full of nesting birds, with their eggs and young, and rat snakes, which are capable of climbing trees and poles, will feed on them. That, in my considered opinion, is a capital offense.
I arrived at this conclusion some 20 years ago when my son, then about 8 years old, informed me early one evening that he had seen a snake’s head peering out from one of our birdhouses. My fury at the thought of a snake devouring some fledglings was tempered only by uncertainty about what to do: It was too late to save the wrens, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to extricate a snake from a birdhouse.
While my wife, young son, and even younger daughter watched—at a respectful distance—I tried banging the birdhouse repeatedly from behind, dousing its interior with a garden hose, even sticking a lit sparkler inside the hole, in a vain attempt to draw the snake out. Nothing worked. Finally, after pulling the house down from the tree branch and persuading my wife to shake it from behind when I gave the signal, I armed myself with an axe and awaited what promised to be a dramatic climax to my clumsy efforts at vengeance.
Unlike D.H. Lawrence, who encountered his serpent in solitude, I assumed that this was a scene—unprecedented in our family’s history—which my children would long remember. And so, as my wife shook the bird house, and the snake flew wildly through the air before hitting the ground, Daddy swung his axe with one mighty heave, and decapitated it.
Which is why, when I spied that rat snake in my driveway the other day, I succumbed to “the voices of my accursed human education” and staged a preemptive strike.