I am taking a summer break for a few weeks to spend time with my family and travel. Meantime, I'm reposting some of the more popular posts I’ve written over the past almost two years (wow, how time flies!) so that new readers have a chance to catch up. Enjoy this post! - Dr. Ayala
This week my kids came running into the house screaming “Snake!”
They had been playing in the back yard and while looking for the lacrosse ball, they lifted the sled they left under the magnolia tree a week ago (what they were doing with a sled in mid-summer is another topic).
And there was the snake, with its beautiful checkerboard patterns, sticking out its tongue at me. I quickly took these pictures and the snake left quietly.
I’ve only lived in this area for about 9 years, and this was the first snake I saw in our own garden. We get plenty of rabbits, deer and foxes, and we’re happy with our animal visitors -- even when they eat up the garden -- but my kids weren’t happy with the snake.
Is fear of snakes inborn? A fear we learn from everything we read, including the very beginning of the Bible? So very few people are happy to see a snake and many snakes wind up getting killed for no good reason.
My kids and I took this opportunity nature had given us to learn more.
Pennsylvania has only three types of venomenous snakes, and we found that an easy method of telling the difference between a poisonous versus a non-poisonous snake is to look at the shape of the pupil. Non-poisonous snakes all have a round pupil (like us people) whereas all poisonous snakes have a vertical elliptical (cat-like) pupil. Alas, I didn’t pay enough attention to the snake's pupil, as the tongue and skin were so much more interesting (and in my picture the snake has “red-eye” syndrome).
I sent the pictures to my very clever friends, and got my answer.
The first to identify the snake as an Eastern garter snake was my artist friend (in my personal experience, artists are acute observers of nature, as nature is the major inspiration of art), followed by my kids’ head of school -- a self attested snake lover, who has a few snakes as pets -- who emailed me that snakes are a good sign of a well-balanced eco-system.
The compliment to my backyard eco-system was nice to hear, as was the fact that these snakes are harmless, and actually beneficial to the garden. They can keep pests, such as rats and mice, in check. Later on I got the same reply from a docent at the Philadelphia Zoo. (You can email any animal question to the zoo, and they’re very responsive and knowledgeable.)
I’m grateful to my garden, for giving me this line of connection to nature and living animals. Although I refer to the garden as “my garden” I know I don’t really own it, but only share it with other living things. So much happens in my little piece of nature that I can’t control and I’ve stopped trying to pretend I can.
We haven’t had even one strawberry this year, although we have three plants. As soon as they ripen, a mysterious caller takes them away, and since we admit that we have so much food, and the animals have so little, we are quite pleased to donate the strawberry.
As to the herbs, I’m happy to say that those are not shared by our wildlife. They leave the herbs well alone for the butterflies to visit.
Somehow, it gives me comfort to know that I, the humble gardener, am just a small part of what’s going on in this ecosystem, and that life bursts forth with all its force, despite my efforts to tame it.
Hope you’re enjoying your summer!