Turning over stuff to see what's underneath
File Photo by Tim Johnson
I found a dead snake on Music Street the other day. Not a terribly unusual event, except that it was a kind of snake I'd never seen before, on the Vineyard or anywhere else. That was a surprise to me, because snakes used to be my thing.
When I was ten and eleven and twelve, I always carried an extra sock in my pocket. A sock is great for carrying a snake. Just pop the snake in and tie a knot. It's soft and dark, and your snake can breathe and usually calms right down until you get it home. I made wooden cages with hardware-cloth fronts, and the east porch of my parents' home in Concord — which was where they entertained in the summertime before we discovered Martha's Vineyard — usually had a dry, musky ambiance. My parents' friends thought most of the snakes were okay, but the big water snakes did upset some of the ladies.
Fortunately, my water-snake phase lasted only one summer. I would creep through the muck and lily pads in the shallow ponds around Concord, wearing only old sneakers, a bathing suit, and heavy work gloves. Sometimes I was walking on the bottom, sometimes swimming. It was better to be walking if you found a snake. Red-bellied water snakes can be five feet long and bigger around than my arm was then. I never kept any one of them caged very long — they're hard to feed — but it seemed as if I always had a couple on hand. There were also garter snakes and milk snakes in my zoo, and once even a black racer (they're wicked hard to catch).
In middle school I wanted to be a naturalist, like Roger Fenn, my wise old headmaster and first science teacher, or Norman Harris on TV from the Boston Museum of Science. I wanted to grow up to be Jim Fowler, who did all the dangerous stuff while Marlin Perkins sat in the jeep and narrated Wild Kingdom. However, when I got to high school, I found out that biology is really hard; you have to know chemistry and math and all. Turns out that what I thought a "naturalist" was, had less to do with science and more to do with just messing around with animals. High school science class was a rude awakening.
However, just because I couldn't cut it as a real scientist never stopped me from enjoying woods, fields, ponds, and oceans and the critters that live in them. A pleasure that's lasted more than 50 years. My sons were never as nuts about snakes as I had been, which is just as well, but they inherited (or learned) my habit of turning over stuff to see what's underneath. Our woodpile, a dry and sun-warmed multistory apartment complex for rodents, was a particularly fine place to find milk snakes. I helped the boys find cages for various critters they caught, and I thought we had seen, if not captured, every snake species found on the Vineyard — milk snakes, green snakes, garter snakes, black snakes.
So I was surprised to find a small, slender snake with a dark gray back, a bright yellow belly, and one bright yellow stripe behind its head. The cause of death was clearly a puncture wound in its side. Perhaps some bird had killed it but been scared off. Not having a sock with me, I took the little snake home in the bag the Boston Globe comes in. Perhaps, I thought, it is some exotic species someone kept as a pet.
Wrong. On the internet I soon found it was a ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus), common all over North America. I've since learned that they do live on the Vineyard — Chris Morse found one inside the Granary Gallery a couple of weeks later. How had I missed them all these years? Ring-necked snakes, according to the University of Michigan, are active only at night. Who ever heard of a cold-blooded creature that is active only at night? Even so, you'd think I might have come across a den in my snake-hunting years, when I turned over every sun-warmed rock, log, or piece of scrap metal I could lift.
The lesson for me is that there's always something new to see, something more to learn, even when I think I know it all. Perhaps especially when I think I know it all, because when you think you know it all, you stop looking. And that's true of a lot more things than snakes. You've just got to keep turning over stuff to see what's underneath.