At one point in my life, I was so afraid of snakes that even coming across a picture of one inadvertently in a book or magazine would cause me to recoil in terror. When my family visited the Toledo Zoo, I would wait quietly on a bench outside the “Reptilia” house while the others went inside to view the assortment of rattlesnakes, cobras, copperheads, and cottonmouths. I wanted no part of them, even if they were safely behind glass.
Ironically, the part of Ohio where I grew up has virtually no poisonous snakes. Copperheads and timber rattlesnakes can occasionally be found in the southern part of the state, and the tiny massasauga rattlesnake was once native to the Lake Erie islands. But, by the time I began wandering the woods and fields around my home, there hadn’t been a sighting of a rattler in more than a decade.
That’s not to say that there weren’t unpleasant snakes around. The northern water snake, a large, aggressive species, is plentiful throughout the region. I would often come across them in the low, marshy woods around my house, and occasionally one would even find its way into our backyard. Northern water snakes do not fear humans and will strike with little or no provocation. Although they do not inject venom, their mouths are filled with razor-sharp teeth and they bite deep and hold on.
When I was about 5 years old, my father and I were taking a walk in the woods when we came upon a huge water snake. My father was in the habit of carrying a sword he brought home from France after WWII with him on his treks in the woods, and he dispatched the snake quickly. The severed snake parts bled and writhed horrifically, which made quite an impression on me. I’m pretty sure that traumatic event has something to do with my aversion toward snakes. It is also the basis for a scene in my short story “Bittersweet Gypsum.”
One of my high school science teachers, Mr. Link, kept a large boa constrictor named Samantha in his classroom. She was in a tall wire mesh cage with the fake tree up the middle he kept in the back corner of the room. In those days, we were seated alphabetically – which is why I know Debbie Mardosa primarily by the back of her head. As luck would have it, the seating for that class worked out so that I was in the last seat of the row closest to the cage, maybe six feet away.
Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, Samantha sat silently in her tree, occasionally flicking her tongue to taste the air. But one day during class, something must have agitated her, and she began thrashing around. I leaped from my chair, screamed “HOLY $@#&,” and ran to the other side of the room. Needless to say, the other kids got a kick out of that, and I had to endure a month of snide comments about my “kiss from Samantha.”
When I moved to North Carolina, I did so with full knowledge that I was relocating from a place with almost no poisonous snakes to the poisonous snake capital of the United States. Those first few walks in the woods here, heck, the first few walks in my backyard, were highly tenuous. I saw my first copperhead that summer, an unusually large one crossing the road at the business park where I rode my bike in the evenings. And my second one a few weeks later. You either learn to live with the threat, or you never leave the house.
The day I realized I was over the worst of my fear of snakes was the 4th of July, 2018. My wife, my dog, and I were hiking a remote trail at South Mountains State Park. We were walking along a narrow path through knee-high scrub when my wife, 15 feet behind me, let out a yell.
“What is it?” I turned impatiently and asked.
Sure enough, a few yards back down the trail, a canebrake rattler as thick as my wrist was coiled under a low bush. My dog and I had stepped right past it without even noticing. But instead of screaming and running away, I pulled out my iPhone and started filming. The snake raised its tail and gave one short maraca burst that indicated “close enough.” Although I was well beyond striking distance, the fact that I was more curious than scared was a breakthrough.
For most of my life, the distinction between “good” and “bad” snakes was nonexistent. My philosophy was, “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.” These days, though, I have a more “live and let live” view. I’m never going to have a snake as a pet, and if a copperhead shows up in my backyard, it’s not long for this world, but if a black rat, king, or water snake crosses my path, it has nothing to worry about.