Sunday, May 5, 2013

Snakes in the Woods: (Almost) a YouTube Sensation


In the ancient Greek story, Tiresisas the seer is walking in the woods one day when he comes upon two snakes in the act of coitus. He strikes them with his stick and is instantly transformed from a man to a woman. Years later he comes upon another  pair of snakes in the same act. A quick hand with the stick and, presto, he's changed back to a man. Tiresisas is now in a postion to answer the eternal question the Greeks -- a famously philosophical, and scientific-minded, race -- put to him. Who has more pleasure in the act of love, the man or the woman? For the record, the seer's reply is the woman.
            I'm afraid we saw something different in the woods today. Two snakes -- one much larger than the other -- locked together. The reason in this case, however, was the large one was eating the smaller.
            It took a moment before we understood what was going on. Then came that little shock of disbelief. The larger snake, the only one we saw at first, was much larger than any snake we've ever seen around here. Its skin was black and the scales smooth. Accustomed to the homey little things we call garter snakes, I couldn't believe how big he was. Usually when you come upon a snake, it's hightailing -- or low-winding -- away from you, in a hurry to hide beneath some convenient underbrush or leaf pile as fast as its legless body can go. Not this one.
            While the snake had some patchwork patterning, like striations on his skin, I couldn't talk myself into believing he was some kind of eccentric variation of rattler. But he puzzled us by being half under a leaf and brush pile and in no apparent hurry to make himself scarce.
            One end of him corkscrewed out of the leaf pile and came into plain view.
            "So that's the head?" Anne asked.
            "It looks like the tail," I replied.
            "Then he has tails at both ends."
            That is kind of the way it looks. The other end of him is obscured by the leaf pile. Then some  other pointy end pops out.
            "No," I say when the picture comes into focus, "that's his head -- eating another snake."
            The big snake has his mouth open -- I can't say "wide" because it looks narrow for what he's attempting -- and is clearly around what must be the head-end of the smaller snake. Some blood shows on the smaller one's skin. We can't tell how much of the smaller one is already inside that mouth.
            What we can see is a lot of thrashing. The big one moves its body abruptly from side to another; it looks like some fancy computer graphic swinging a convex curve into concave and back again. Then it straightens its long body, as if to open the tube of its inner self some teeny bit wider to take more of the tube-like body of the creature it's consuming into its slow-moving digestive track.
            This may sound disgusting, but in the moment it's eerily fascinating.
            The skinny one -- the common garter snake, the kind of snake we're used to seeing in the woods doing that rapid rustle in the grass routine (producing the moment of consciousness Emily Dickinson brilliantly described as "zero at the bone") -- appears to be trying to move its tail. The skinny end of it wraps around the body of the larger one as if seeking purchase to pull the rest of itself back out. Or this may be, we speculate, a reflex from a creature essentially dead already. Maybe the far end of the tail hasn't got the message yet.
            In any event it's going to be a long day for the black snake even if he does get to the end of what he's -- bitten off?
            "His eyes are bigger than his stomach," Anne says.
            But I don't know how to measure a snake's stomach. Or is stomach a meaningless term for snake anatomy? I am a child in matters reptilian.
            What looks to us like a death-match struggle of unfairly matched contestants wrestling in the dirt may be the only way a snake of this size gets a full meal.
            The consumer yanks the consumed in one direction, toward us, and we jump back. Then he drags it back into the leaf and bush pile.
            I don't know how long we would have kept watching, and I doubt final consumption/consummation is imminent, but big snake now begins to slap its tail back and forth in the leaves, making a low noise.
            It's too much like the behavior of a rattler, only there's little real noise and no rattle. Still it looks to me like communication. I think he's finally realized we're there: two large creatures standing near and watching him work.
            "What's that?" she asks.
            I suspect it's meaningful, I tell her. "I think he's warning us to stay away. I think it's communication."
            "OK. Then let's go."
            We assure one another we were just about to get a move on anyway.
            Back at the house, Anne ID's the big snake as a "black racer," from 36 to 60 inches long, and sometimes stretching out to 6 feet. I'm estimating the one we saw at about 4.5 feet. A photo on line confirms the smaller one as a garter snake.
            I recall deciding right before we left the house for our walk that we didn't need the camera. Of course, what we really needed was a video camera.
            "Too bad," Anne points out. "It would have been a YouTube sensation."