Childhood, Chronic Illness

Where are the Snakes?

One year ago today we spotted our first snake in the garden bed out front: an Eastern Garter (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis).

I love snakes, particularly Eastern Garters. Growing up in the early 80s, I lived in a townhouse complex next to a big brownfield that was behind a Towers/Food City plaza. Those stores don’t exist anymore and neither does the brownfield — it was replaced by another townhouse complex in the 90s. That brownfield was my idea of heaven. I would have gone there to explore every single day had I been allowed. In the spring an ephemeral pond formed after the rains, and the edges were alive with the squirming and bloated black tadpoles of some toad species. I would beg to be taken there so I could witness their cycle as they developed legs, and eventually, as summer approached and the pond dried up, lose their tails and become little brown toads that populated the tall grasses and weeds.

There were garters there too. Sometimes they’d find their way underneath our concrete front stoops or into our tiny postage stamp backyards, and in time I became known as the girl who would come and catch them. I kept a pair for a time that I named Tom and Sandy after my eccentric neighbours who in a decade of living next door never caught on that my name wasn’t Kayla like a character in their favourite daytime soap opera. Back then, pre-Internet or home computers, my snake-keeping knowledge was limited to the already decades old children’s’ science books in stock at the city library. Feeling inadequate, I let the snakes go. At some point, the real Tom and Sandy, having a lot of kids and stuff in the house, asked us to keep a homemade terrarium for them. It was about as big as and kept next to a gigantic coffin-like freezer that was usually filled with cheap loaves of squished white bread and bricks of Pepperidge Farm cakes bought when they were on sale. I caught a very angry ribbon snake (Thamnophis saurita) and tried housing him in the terrarium. It was a good size and I did a decent job decorating it, but again, I lacked the knowledge and resources and let him go too.

Did you know that it wasn’t until the 90s that we learned that garters have a venom of sorts? It is not injected by fangs, but more like a secretion that is chewed into prey through back teeth. This secretion is pretty much harmless to humans unless you have an allergy and you’d have to let them chew on you for awhile to be affected.

Despite the nature here, we have not seen a single snake since spotting this first one. Before we moved here, I excitedly expected to see snakes all the time. I imagined it as an opportunity to relive some of that childhood joy. Through my adult life I have often gone out of my way to look for snakes and failed. On our first desert trip I wore leather boots constantly despite high summer heat because I was so sure there would be rattlers everywhere! I knew I was kidding myself when our host in Joshua Tree showed up to take us on an early morning hike wearing flip-flops. So desperate were we to see snakes, we hired a herpetologist to take us out herping one evening before the intense sun went down, but it was still too hot and off season. We didn’t see a single snake or reptile.

I sometimes think that animals come to us for whatever reason. We decide if there is meaning to these visitations or not. Perhaps it is not so much the universe trying to teach us something but more that there is life and knowledge to be found in nature and the beings around us that are often older and more knowing than we are. We can decide to be humbled, observant, and learn from nature or we can be arrogant and incurious.

For two years I kept running into spiders and eventually it was so frequent that I started going out of my way to find them and learn about them. Spiders taught me about transformation and sloughing off old skin that doesn’t fit me anymore, honouring my boundaries, and that sometimes it is okay to be a bad ass bitch.

For years I’ve been asking, “Where are the snakes?” and wondering what they would teach me if I found them. Perhaps for now the lesson is in not seeing them. Perhaps what they can teach me is how to respect my current state of vulnerability (due to chronic illness), and how to lay low and wait for my moment to come.

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