From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Amazing Garter Snake Stories

Garter snakes in the Nebraska Sandhills


I have snakes on my mind lately because we've been seeing them. A few days ago, we saw some sort of a 4-foot snake headed across the yard. Yesterday, we saw a big blacksnake crossing the highway.

And today, Dennis was moving some railroad ties and found a big brown snake under them. It might have been the same snake we saw last summer in the hollow tree branch. He came to the house twice to tell me to come look at it. I hurried, but the snake disappeared both times before I got there. We think he was retreating to a hole in the ground.

So, I am feeling a bit "snakey" and this has reminded me of an amazing thing I saw when I was a kid in the Nebraska Sandhills.

We had a well that my mother used for irrigating her garden and the lawn. The pump sat at the bottom of a concrete-block pit, about six feet underground. One spring for some reason, my dad took the lid off that well, and what he saw inside was so amazing that he called us all to see it.

The well pit was filled with hundreds of garter snakes, twisted and twined together, and the entire mass of snakes was writhing and wriggling. It was like Medusa's hair on a much larger scale! The snakes had probably just awakened from hibernation and they were either preparing to leave their den or they were doing mating maneuvers.

An Audubon Magazine article talks about tangled heaps of snakes in its description of the mating of the red-sided garter snake, one of the native garter snakes of Nebraska. (The article is about Manitoba. Apparently, there are some incredibly large garter snake dens there.)

Garter snake One more garter snake story -- also from my childhood in Nebraska. When I was about ten, my parents installed a new furnace. The furnace heated the house by running hot water through baseboard radiators and through coils under the floor.

During installation, the furnace guys drilled a hole through the foundation of the house to insert some of the necessary piping, and they didn't fill the hole when they were done. That fall as the days grew cold, many garter snakes crawled through that little hole looking for a haven for hibernation.

That was the Winter of the Snakes. In the heated crawlspace, it didn't get cold enough for them to really hibernate. They stayed active, and they crawled up into the house through any little openings they could find.

They liked to go inside the baseboard radiators where it was nice and warm. I remember lying in my bed more than one night, listening to a snake slither across the coils of the radiator.

They also liked the kitchen. One time my mother found a garter snake resting inside a cast iron skillet on the gas range (a warm spot because of the pilot lights.) Another time, she found one curled up in a bowl on the shelf.

Every now and then, a snake slithered across the floor on its way to somewhere. I suppose they were hungry! I was afraid to get out of bed at night because I might step on one in the dark!

I found one swimming in the toilet one day. Another snake crawled up into the wall of our bedroom, got stuck and died there, which made our room smell bad for a while.

My mother didn't take kindly to the invasion, and soon the handle of her broom was dented and bloody from beating garter snakes to death with it.

Of course, we located and plugged the hole when we realized we had a snake problem, but it was too late. When spring finally came, my mom opened the hole every morning so the snakes could leave and put the plug back in every night so they couldn't return. Finally we stopped finding them in the house, and my dad filled their entry-hole permanently with cement. Boy, were we glad!

Snake image from U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute.

2 comments:

ptg said...

As a little kid, I used to catch garter snakes and keep them in the pockets of my jeans. They would stay in there all day. Sometimes I forgot about one and it would stay in the pocket even after I changed clothes. My mother would get a surprise now and then when she did laundry.

Genevieve said...

Exactly the sort of surprise a mother hopes for and enjoys when she empties out a pocket! :D

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

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