The heat is overwhelming, and I’m out of herbicide. I head over to the lone bur oak tree where I had cached my supplies earlier, remove my backpack sprayer, and feast in the comforting shade. Minutes pass as I attentively mix a new batch of herbicide, oblivious to the fact that I’m not the only creature enjoying the shade. The realization comes slowly at first, with the nearby log in my peripheral vision suddenly morphing into a “whoa” moment when I finally recognize it as a snake! Just two paces away lies a bullsnake, stretched out from head to tail, apparently cooling in the shade.
She’s big, with a girth as thick as my forearm and a length of six feet or so. She’s beautiful. Lying there calmly. For a brief foolish moment, I consider laying down next to her, hoping to confirm her length by comparing it to my six-foot frame. But, as is typical with close animal encounters in the wild, as soon as the critter knows that you know it’s there, it takes off. I watch her glide effortlessly away. I leave her in peace, not wanting to create any more disturbance.
My entire childhood, I searched for the snakes of legends. I spent hours in the fields trying to confirm the snake tales of my elders - blue racers that could outrun a man; a snake so long that its body covered the width of the tractor path; a monstrous snake that lived in an old farm house you could hear moving in both the kitchen and back bedroom walls at the same time.
But it was my mother’s tale that left the most lasting impression. She recalled as a child bracing herself on what she thought was a bicycle tire wrapped around the corn crib’s laths only to find it was a giant snake. This surprising encounter traumatized her and resulted in a lifetime terror of snakes.
My mother’s fear of snakes, the serpent parable in Genesis, the mantra that snakes are evil - it all gave me pause. But the message was mixed. The legendary stories of giant snakes had a mysterious aura about them – a sense of wild excitement in the presence of an enigmatic beast.
With boots, compass and a net, my lifelong snake adventures began. I searched the fields and woods, old barns and houses, swamps, rock piles and abandoned stone cellars. I turned over hundreds of logs and rocks. I followed every snake lead that I heard, and I found hundreds of these awesome creatures, but nothing of legendary stature.
Through the years, I broadened my knowledge of snakes from both scientific and religious perspectives. For example, I learned in the Book of Kells, a 9th century manuscript that documents the four Gospels of the life of Jesus Christ, the snake, reborn through the shedding of its skin, is perceived as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.
Snakes also are an important part of the ecosystem. As carnivores, they prey on rodents, insects, other snakes, amphibians, earthworms, slugs, eggs and birds. Like other predators, they contribute to a balanced and stable ecosystem and help maintain biodiversity. Snakes also are prey species, often falling victim to other snakes, mammalian predators, cranes, turkeys, herons, raptors. The red-tailed hawk seems to be very efficient at picking off large snakes.
In Wisconsin, according to the DNR, we have 21 snake species, 14 of which are considered rare (endangered, threatened or special concern). This includes the bullsnake. Worldwide, according to The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (ICUN) Red List of Threatened Species, 12% of assessed snake species are listed as threatened. Most species of reptiles, including snakes, have yet to be assessed by ICUN, however, leaving their conservation status unknown.
The good news is that with habitat restoration and careful management, snake populations can recover. I have witnessed this over and over during my work on client properties. On our land, snake encounters are now common compared to when we started restoration in 2001. However, we have yet to find new species of snake.
The snake will always be mysterious to me. Even today, after all these years, I’ll take the time to check each snake encounter. Maybe it’s the child in me hoping to discover a legend, or maybe it’s the scientist hoping to find a lost species. Either way, the captivating aura of the snake lives on.
So dear mother, this is my snake confession. Please forgive me. You raised me right. I want you to know I heard and understood your message. I just couldn’t help myself. I figure I got the undesirable “snake” gene from dad. All those tall tales I heard when I was a kid drove my curiosity. I just had to experience it for myself.
But at last, I now have a legendary snake tale to tell. In the not-so-distant future, when my times afield are mostly a memory, I can speak of an era when “men were men” and snakes were huge. I’ll recall that day, to young minds eager to hear, when I alone stared down a snake as thick as my thigh and as long as a telephone pole.