Quotation attributed to Natty Bumpo, scribed on the bar at Gina’s Restaurant, on the main drag in St. Michaels.
Snakes are scary for many, loveable to a few, intriguing to most, deep in our history and culture.
Although a wide variety of snakes live on the Delmarva Peninsula, almost all of them – with the rare possible exceptions of copperheads and water moccasins – are not poisonous.
On Grace Creek in Talbot County, lots of water, surrounded by dense pine forests, spreads out in front of me. Water snakes work the edges along the creek, sunning themselves occasionally on rip rap rocks, slithering through the scuppers of an occasional crabber’s boat to feast on discarded razor clam and chicken neck baits, keeping wary eyes open for stealthy blue herons that can outstrike their prey for a slippery meal.
In the still winter woods behind me, cold-blooded black snakes hibernate inside rotten trees or beneath leaf and pine-needle insulated logs. When spring sun warms the woods, the snakes begin to stir. When summer brings on its heat like we have had this week, black snakes soak up as much of that heat as possible. It energizes them.
That’s when they get serious about eating eggs laid by other reptiles and birds. They are amazing climbers and will roam an entire tree and all of its branches to find nests. Countless frogs and toads on the ground and in trees also figure prominently in a black snake’s menu.
Needless to say, snakes aren’t popular with toads or mama and papa birds.
Groups of blue jays clamoring raucously in the woods signal clearly they’ve spotted a snake among their nests. They go into full dive-bomber- shock-and-awe mode, darting with bills, slapping with wings, screaming with their piercing calls to chase the persistent interlopers away from their defenseless babies. But hunger is a powerful motivator.
I keep a close eye out for snakes. Like most wild creatures, they fear us more than we fear them. But if backed into a corner or a tight spot, or if it comes to defending their own young, they will strike and they will bite.
A coiled snake is nothing to play with. That’s when they are best positioned to strike. I don’t like to be startled or surprised by them, but if I know where they are, I’m happy to let them do their thing while I do mine.
Instinctive fear of snakes
Somehow we have an almost instinctive fear or respect for snakes. Thousands of years of human experience have planted that respect in our DNA, maybe even predating Eve’s encounter with the beguiling serpent in the Garden of Eden.
In Central American countries, where poisonous snakes abound, and men carry machetes like we carry pocket knives, no serpent receives the benefit of the doubt.
We’ve all seen images of deadly cobras rising out of grass baskets to the hypnotic strains of flutes, played by turbaned Indian charmers sitting cross-legged in front of sinister, hooded, beady-eyed faces.
We’ve read about Cleopatra and her deadly asp, and heard tales of rugged frontiersmen like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone grabbing rattlesnakes by the tail, snapping them like a bull whip and sending their heads flying.
Many have snake stories closer to home, like the day Cliff was leading a hike through the Appalachians and suddenly let out a big “whoaaa” as he made a high, arching jump step.
We stopped to see what happened. There, in the middle of the trail, we saw a coiling eastern rattler, scanning us with its eyes, warning us with its shaking tail, probably just as bewildered as we were at the sight of a human being almost taking flight above it.
Or the day Becky stepped on a hose in a greenhouse – or at least she thought it was a hose – until it moved under her shoe and she realized it was a snake. And the day Albert reached for a length of chain hanging from a rafter in his shed and discovered a black snake keeping the metal links company.
No doubt, snakes are special. My dearly departed brother-in-law Cawood was fond of saying that a snake will eat anything it can get its hands on. He had that kind of sense of humor.
But really, how does a black snake climb right up a tree with neither hands nor feet? Like I said, they’re special.
Geometric markings on garden snakes can be artistic and colorful, and propelled by their undulating curves, swimming through water, snakes can be downright graceful.
Snakes truly are marvelous beings on this amazing planet of ours, whether we see them as villains or guides.
Dennis Forney grew up on the Chester River in Chestertown. After graduating Oberlin College, he returned to the Shore where he wrote for the Queen Anne’s Record Observer, the Bay Times, the Star Democrat, and the Watermen’s Gazette. He moved to Lewes, Delaware in 1975 with his wife Becky where they lived for 45 years, raising their family and enjoying the saltwater life. Forney and Trish Vernon founded the Cape Gazette, a community newspaper serving eastern Sussex County, in 1993, where he served as publisher until 2020. He continues to write for the Cape Gazette as publisher emeritus and expanded his Delmarva footprint in 2020 with a move to Bozman in Talbot County.