Considering the title, readers familiar with my work will expect this story to take a turn for the metaphorical, to skewer or, at least, examine a lawyer or business or school-related character who shocked me or taught me to be wary. But, no, this is really about a snake in the grass.
I was mowing the lawn this morning, thinking a variety of virtuous thoughts, as I always do. See, the only way I convince myself that mowing the lawn is a reasonable activity for me to undertake, when it would be so easy to just hire someone to do it, other than the crass motivation of “saving money,” is that it is a form of exercise; it’s as valid as going to the gym. In addition, since I use a reel mower not seen in these parts since the 1950’s, I am helping the earth by rejecting fossil fuels. Also, my mower is quiet. Yes, that is the self-congratulatory mindset I usually wallow in while doing a passable, if mediocre, job on my lawn.
When I finished the front yard and proceeded to the rear yard this morning, I noted in my peripheral vision what initially struck me as an odd-colored and odd-shaped black-and-white stick, about five feet in length, ahead of me.
I did not need Jane Goodall’s level of naturalist expertise to conclude, after the initial shock: “That’s not a stick.” A very-much-alive, slithering object was slowly wending its way across my lawn twenty feet ahead. And, unlike several other snakes I have encountered, this one did not startle and race away in the opposite direction. Rather, he/she simply appeared to consider my presence and my now-regrettably quiet and non-threatening mower, to be part of the local environment.
“Whoa, that’s a big one,” I said to myself. This conclusion was in contrast to the not-uncommon sight of baby or juvenile snakes that we see somewhat regularly in a deceased and flattened state on our community’s concrete roads. We have often noted, my wife and I, that there are a lot of traffic-naive baby snakes around, yet one rarely sees the grown-ups. Obviously, they must be around somewhere; this morning, one was in my yard.
Let the record reflect I did not yelp or run. I merely blanched and hurriedly turned my mower around and headed towards the front of the house. There, with my front lawn mown but my back lawn still long, I considered my options. I could tell Katie the mower broke, and we needed to hire someone to finish the job. Lame. I could grab a shovel and return to the backyard to kill the serpent. No way. I recalled the time, several years ago, when we needed our seventy-five year-old neighbor to come to our driveway with his shovel to dispense with a live, baby copperhead. As humiliating as it should have been for me to stand by while he defended my house and family from the ten-inch menace, I was perfectly satisfied with my choice.
“I know what to do,” I said to myself. “I’ll look up black-and-white striped snakes on the internet and figure out what kind of snake this is. THEN, I can decide if we need to hire someone to mow the back or if I need to innocently ask our neighbor to take a stroll in the yard to, ostensibly, look at my vegetable garden. If he is away, I can suggest to Katie we let the backyard grow into a natural space and never step foot in it again.”
Meanwhile, when I went inside and looked out at the back yard, what I really hoped was that the snake had forsaken our yard forever. I was craving a triumph of “Wu-Wei,” the Chinese concept of “action through inaction,” that has guided so much of my life. Initially, I couldn’t locate the snake. My heart rate slowed. Calmly, confident the snake had disappeared, I entered “Black and White snakes in North Carolina.” Immediately, a whole page of pictures popped up. “My” snake, it turns out, is common and harmless. In spite of his passivity, he/she is grandly named a “King Snake,” with unmistakable black and white stripes. He is not poisonous or aggressive around people and is actually described as a boon to a garden because he is so effective at killing rodents.
“Okay,” I said to myself, “he’s (I decided to consider him a ‘he’ due to his name) not bad to have in the vicinity, so long as he isn’t too close.” I continued to read a comment from someone who witnessed a king snake actually attack and kill a larger, poisonous copperhead. “Wow,” I thought, “not only is he harmless, he’s also heroic. So long as I don’t have to see him, I can live with a king snake in the neighborhood.”
It was at that moment my heart sank; I looked outside just in time to see my slithering neighbor, my serpentine savior slide into a hole leading beneath my patio. “Great, just great. He’s the other resident in what is now a duplex.”
So, now what do I do? Only an ogre would poison a snake so regal (no pun intended). But I really don’t want to think about him every time I venture to the back yard. And I definitely don’t want to see him on a regular basis. And there are several family members who don’t want to know the nuances of “good snake versus bad snake,” to whom “a snake is a snake.”
Back to the internet again: there are non-lethal, organic sprays and powders that are designed to encourage a snake to depart. I suppose I’ll try them. To paraphrase an adage from movies and literature to describe everything from “men” to “women” to “internet passwords”: “A beneficial snake. Can’t live with him; can’t kill him.”