The Snake in the Garden

Tom Tomas

Last summer, I was pulling weeds in the garden and decided to feed them to the rabbits. One doe had a litter of eleven that were about a third grown already and, while still nursing, were eating greens at a voracious rate. In the mornings and evenings, I would pull dandelions and grass for them. Through the day, whenever I happened to pull weeds, I would feed them to the rabbits as well. It was late afternoon when I went to the cage and, when I opened the door, I sensed something was wrong. The doe was sitting quietly outside the nest box with several of the bunnies, who were quite nervous.

I tipped the box forward so that I could see into it, and heard a hiss. A bull snake was wrapped around a black bunny in the box. I took the box out of the cage and uncoiled the snake from the bunny. The bunny was already dead and too large for the snake to swallow. I took the snake to the raspberry patch behind the shed and let it go, telling it to look for mice.

I like to see snakes in my garden. The most common ones are garter snakes, but I have seen bull snakes before. They feed on insects and rodents, and are beautiful to watch. They get the adrenaline pumping when I come upon them suddenly. When we lived in Lincoln County, rattlesnakes occasionally turned up in the garden and we killed them. When I came across rattlesnakes while hunting in the canyons, I let them be. I could not do the same in the garden, as we had five young children.

This summer, an elderly neighbor found a large garter snake in front of his door and was about to beat it with his cane. I picked it up and turned it loose in my garden. One afternoon, a boy about six years old told me that he had seen my snake. He told me that it had pretty colored stripes, and proceeded to tell me that it was good because it ate mice and bugs. This conversation gave me hope that perhaps our culture's unreasoning fear and loathing of snakes will come to an end.

It seems to me that if we are to survive in this living world, we will have to learn to see the pretty stripes and understand the place of other living creatures in this garden that we share. I have found that I get more from my garden when I understand that I do not own it, but only share it with other life. When I try to control what happens in order to maximize what I want - to the exclusion of other life that has a stake in the garden - I find that I receive less in return for all the effort I expend in control. If the strawberries and cherries are fully protected from the robins, there are fewer nests and fewer fledglings to turn insects into more robins. Much better to plant more strawberries here and there, and cover only that patch of plants that produces what I need.

The same is true for insects. Dill comes up here and there in the garden, and I plant more in the spring to be sure we have enough for pickles. Swallow tail butterflies lay their eggs on the dill, and amazingly beautiful caterpillars emerge to eat the dill. All summer long the caterpillars eat dill, grow, pupate and emerge into beautiful butterflies. Very few flower seeds can equal the beauty on the wing produced by the dill seeds. My grandchildren see the caterpillars and tell me that something is eating my dill. I tell them that there is enough dill for all of us, and we talk about how the caterpillar will turn into a butterfly.

I've taken longer to appreciate the white butterflies with black spots on their wings that lay their eggs on the cabbage. These eggs, of course, turn into green cabbage worms. To a child, these butterflies are beautiful. Once the association with the green, cabbage-eating worms has been made, most adults can no longer see the insects' beauty. This summer, I took more time to appreciate them. They flutter over the cabbage patch and perform their mating rituals. I saw females resting on cabbage leaves, with their wings spread, their abdomens raised in the air, emitting pheromones to attract the males. They would mate and fly away to dance in the air again.

I cut back on my spraying of Dipel. I confined my spraying to the heads and leaves where the damage was serious. After cutting the heads, I left the rest of the plants and did not spray them. I got all the cabbage that I wanted, and butterflies too. I also noticed that some of the worms were parasitized by tiny wasps, and others were carried off by larger wasps and yellow jackets. Occasionally, birds would visit to gather a meal. What more could we all want from that cabbage patch? If hope was inspired when the little boy saw beauty in the snake, then there is also hope for me. I can at last see beauty in white butterflies again.

Back to the bull snake in the rabbit hutch. I went back to pulling weeds and returned with more for the bunnies. Sure enough, the snake was back and had another bunny in its coils. This time I put the snake in the pickup and drove out to the cemetery. There, I let it loose and told it to look for ground squirrels. In my garden we all are entitled to a share, but there are limits. When the snake got too greedy, I cast him out. I think that in the larger garden of life, we too had better not get too greedy or we may also be cast out, again.

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