James Werrell

What’s that slithering across the yard?

I saw a snake the other day.

It was the first snake I’d seen in the wild in years. It was a black snake, about three or four feet long, slithering slowly along the walkway at my mother’s house.

I was not alarmed. The snake was welcome to stay as long as it minded its own business, which, I hope, included eating mice and other small varmints.

My wife saw a black snake crossing our driveway a week or so ago and called to warn me not to run over it. But by the time I got home, it was gone.

I have read that these snake sightings might be more frequent this year because of the heavy rain. Rising lake levels have pushed snakes from the swampy lowlands they prefer to higher ground, where they are more likely to become fixtures in our lawns and gardens.

However, my snake encounters to date have been rare. I know plenty of people who seem to run into snakes all the time, but I’m not one of them.

My buddy Jim Stratakos, former photographer for The Herald, was bitten by a copperhead in his driveway and went through an agonizing recovery that included watching (and photographing) his leg turning black.

A few years ago, my father-in-law had trouble getting his washing machine to work, and called a repairman to take a look. “This might be your problem,” the repairman said as he pulled out a long, dead and presumably clean black snake that had been wrapped around the agitator.

My mother tells the story of when she and my father were living in Thailand when he was with the foreign service. I was an infant at the time.

My parents learned that there was a cobra in the backyard. “Don’t worry,” said the gardener, a Buddhist, “I told the snake not to harm you.”

That didn’t offer them much comfort. But apparently the snake listened, and moved on.

Just the other day, my mom recounted an old snake story from her days as a child in Texas. Someone had just killed a rattlesnake and my mom impulsively picked it up and draped it around her neck. The snake twitched and mom jumped a mile, but no one was bitten.

Someone reminded her of the old saying: You can cut off a snake’s head but it won’t die until the sun goes down. That sounds like it ought to be some kind of metaphor about politicians but probably actually applies only to snakes.

There are plenty of rattlers in Texas. I know that for a fact.

I saw thousands of them at the Jaycees Rattlesnake Roundup in Big Spring when my wife and I lived there. The snakes were corralled in big plexiglass pens, hundreds of them crawling all over each other, hissing and rattling as Jaycees in tall snake boots wandered among the serpents occasionally picking one up with long snake tongs.

The public could “milk” rattlers, holding their heads while their fangs were hooked over a cup, expelling venom that could be used for research or for making antivenin.

The public also could eat rattlers. Jaycees busily chopped the heads off snakes, skinned them, chopped them into pieces, dipped the pieces in flour and fried them.

The standing joke: Rattlesnake doesn’t taste bad but it’s all neck.

I always expected to see a live rattlesnake in the wild in Texas but never did. Occasionally I would see dead ones, run over by cars when the snakes sought the heat of paved roads after the night air cooled. But, no, I never saw a live one in my backyard or anywhere else.

Just as well, I guess. I don’t fancy the idea of meeting up with a live copperhead, either.

But, as noted in a recent Herald story, only about six out of the 38 species of snakes found in South Carolina are venomous. And all snakes will do their best to avoid contact with humans, biting only as a last resort.

Snakes apparently aren’t stupid. Wouldn’t you want to avoid a creature that milks you, cuts off you head, skins you, chops you into pieces and fries you?

James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.