A few days ago, while driving on a road in a nearby rural area, a sizable black snake slithered onto the road a 100 or so yards ahead of me. I slowed down and adjusted steering to miss it. Unfortunately, the vehicle behind me adjusted its direction as well — to make sure it ran over the snake.
Shaking my head in dismay, I continued homeward while pondering deeply rooted aversions to serpents, the symbolism of the Garden of Eden, personal snake encounters over the years, and most of all, a recently published book, “Snakes of the Eastern United States,” by one of the nation’s leading herpetologists, Whit Gibbons.
I’ve known Whit for years, have enjoyed attending a seminar where he discussed the region’s snakes with a few live specimens to show. If you want the real skinny on snakes in our part of the world, his 416-page book from the University of Georgia Press is pretty much the final word on the subject. He covers dozens of species, included a few alien intruders introduced by man. It discusses their habits and habitats, and provides scores of color photographs to help with identification.
Snakes are an integral and beneficial part of the natural world. My Grandpa Joe loved having a resident black snake around his corn crib and chicken lot. It kept the mice and rats at bay. Once, it got a single meal of hen eggs carefully infused with an ample quantity of hot pepper sauce, and there were no more problems on the egg-stealing front.
The almost visceral human dislike of them from appreciable portions of the population focuses more on ignorance than reality.
Obviously poisonous snakes can be a problem, with copperheads being by far the most common in our part of the world. During the four decades I’ve lived in my home -- surrounded by 3 acres with a garden, lawn and wooded areas -- there have been several encounters with copperheads.
In two cases, I found them dead, entangled in protective netting covering berries and could not escape. Once I spotted one from a riding mower. Once I came pretty darn close to an unpleasant encounter while pulling weeds in the garden. Plus, there have been at least two other times when I spotted copperheads.
Honesty compels me to admit in every instance I killed the snake, at least in part because most of the encounters came when our daughter was small, and I was worried about her playing outside.
Likewise, on two occasions, I’ve shot rattlesnakes while bird hunting in warm weather. In each instance, a dog was in danger and would not leave the snake alone.
On the other hand, I’ve watched many more slither away. I’d like to think I’m generally more serpent tolerant than once was the case. Certainly I don’t belong to the school of thought: “the only good snake is a dead snake.” I appreciate their role in the wider scheme of things.
In two of the areas with which I’m most familiar — the Smokies of North Carolina and Tennessee and the state of South Carolina -- snakes of all kinds are in real trouble. That’s because they face a mortal enemy in wild or feral hogs.
In the Smokies of my boyhood there were water snakes everywhere you turned when fishing or play in branches and creeks. Today it’s unusual to see one drop from a limb where it was sunning into the water. Hogs have taken a terrible toll on them.
Much the same thing is happening across significant portions of the Palmetto State where populations of feral hogs have become established.
Still, snakes remains far more plentiful than most folks realize, and as Whit Gibbons told me a while back, “there are far more reptiles around us than we realize.” He used as an example from a survey on a 100-acre piece of property he owns near Orangeburg. His ongoing findings in terms of diversity and the number of species observed have amazed him.
One final thought. My recommendation if you encounter a snake, poisonous or otherwise, just go your way and it will do the same. Well over 50 percent of bites from poisonous snakes come from humans handling them or taking foolish steps such as cutting the head off a just-killed snake with a pocket knife.
Snakes have their place, just as we do, in the larger scheme of life. If you want to learn a great deal more about what that place is and the types of snakes filling it, Gibbons’ book is highly recommended.