July 16, 2002

So Excellent a Serpent: Part One

At last, after long years of studying prepared slides and pickled pigs as a biology major, I was getting into the field-intensive part of my undergraduate servitude. Actually, at the time this tale starts, I was anticipating this blessed under-the-sky part of my education by helping an upper-classman friend who was already involved in such field work. My buddy, Ed, and I offered to assist with the accumulation of class points for Kelly if he will, in turn, help us when it is our time, for real. This seemed like a good excuse at the time to venture out with our potato sticks and pillow cases to catch a nice mess of snakes.

The way this worked was that students in Herpetology 401 made a good part of their grade in the class based on their 'collection': Actual frogs, turtles, lizards, salamanders and snakes captured 'in the field', alive and uninjured, properly identified, field location precisely recorded, and presented to the prof (who was getting a book out of our work, it sits on my shelves upstairs today). Then the specimen was to be returned to precisely the point of capture. The more rare or of interest to the prof, the higher the number of points awarded.

I have to confess that, growing up in Birmingham, I was pretty much a city kid. And around my house, the only GOOD snake was a DEAD snake. And I had killed my share. Any slithery beasty near the water must be a Water Moccasin. On dry uplands, must be a Rattler, never mind the fact that there were not any rattles; it could be a trick! I once 'saved' my present wife from the most undeadly of herpetilians: the dreaded Southern Hognose Snake!

How deadly is it, you ask! It eats toads. Deadly to toads. A toad, upon being snatched into the jaws of a hog-nosed snake (also called a Puffing Adder, they do look quite fierce) will inflate itself to its largest size to avoid being swallowed; you would do the same thing in its situation). Well adapted to its preferred meat, the snake has rather long fangs, 'toadstickers', that are well back in its throat. Even if this hapless snake had offered to strike something so large it could not swallow (like human extremities, which they rarely do), chances are no teeth would contact your stupid, ignorant arm. More than that, they are the possums of the snake world. They roll over belly-up when harassed; roll them upright, and they die again, and again. Chopped his head clean off. I da man! Kick a little snake butt! God forgive me!

So, I felt very self-righteous after college training and association with herpetophiles taught me the error of my ways: most snakes are better alive than dead. I was a very pacifist snake hunter and scolded the unwashed for their ignorance. Ed and I were out one day, in a weed choked, flooded county roadside ditch somewhere near Auburn. We had scared up some kind of water snake (and believe me, there are ALL kinds in Alabama. Non poisonous, bad teeth, bad disposition: do not pet) and were mucking about wildly trying to head the thing off before it could hide in the culvert.

About that time, a dust-colored car pulled up slowly, and I got the feeling of being watched. Hey, we are the entertainment! I puffed up like that poor hog-nosed snake, proud to be the macho crocodile hunter, full of snake-savvy and male hormone. This observer was surely impressed. He rolled down his window, to offer his praises.

An elderly grizzled black man pokes his thin face just barely past the glass of a partially lowered window and asks "What you boys doin' there?"

"We're catching snakes to take back to the University", we gloated.

He paused to consider his response. Looking as if he had seen a ghost as he rolled up the window and prepared for a hasty retreat, he said "You boys must be in LEAGUE WIT DA DEBIL!"

I think my dear wife came to share those sentiments about a year later when she married the Snake Man. But more about that later.

Posted by fred1st at July 16, 2002 06:59 AM
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