I grew up in Texas, where each of the four North American poisonous snakes lives, so it seems natural to me that I’m afraid of snakes. I grew up with horror stories of giant rattlers, quiet and sneaky copperheads, and vicious cottonmouths that aggressively defended their watery territory. We swam in many farm ponds, where I was not too apprehensive until my brother explained that cottonmouths caught fish underwater, so they could easily bite me when I couldn’t see them. Coral snakes weren’t fanged, they just chewed you to death (and they were pretty rare), so I was less scared of them.
I was reminded of this part of my childhood last week when I stepped into the garden mint patch and a small garter snake slid quickly across my foot. I did not scream (at least out loud), and my leap across the garden could have been interpreted as trying not to step on the plants (unless someone saw me). After my heart rate returned to normal and I could breathe again, I continued my gardening wondering if it was better to be more watchful in order to see the snake or less so to avoid all the drama (“What you don’t see can’t hurt you,” was never spoken by Stephen King).
Our neighborhood in Texas was pre-war subdivisions, so we had biggish trees and quite a bit of vegetation that we had to water frequently. Most houses had lawns and some had flower beds by the porch, but one neighbor had her backyard completely converted into an actual flower garden. I remember the wisteria and iris, but the other flowers escape me. My brother and I were completely baffled that someone would prefer flowers to a lawn. Where did they play football and tag and wrestle?
(Not only that, but another neighbor actually had plants in her house! Talk about crazy.)
We could sometimes go to the flower garden and if we were careful and quick, we could catch horny toads, or horned frogs (as the Texas Christian University mascot was called). Horny toads were hard to spot, looking just like the baked dirt, but they liked the bugs in the garden and could be seen scampering and lunging for their prey.
Horny toads are kinda flat, have goat horns on their heads and their back is covered with small spikes. Catching them barehanded required some toughness, since they’re prickly and the horns are pretty sharp. They jerk their head back to jab you when you try to hold them, and spit out a black gooey liquid to scare you off. At the time, westerns were big, so we got to see lots of tough guys chewing and spitting tobacco, which it seemed the horny toads emulated.
Back then, chaw was a plug; you cut off some shreds and packed them into your cheek. In civilization where you couldn’t spit on the ground, you carried a cup or beer can to spit into. (I learned quickly not to sneak a drink from someone else’s pop or beer can without making sure they weren’t chewing.) Some grandmothers (not mine) took snoose (snuff), which they tucked into their lip and spit discretely into a handkerchief. I was surprised the first time I saw a man with snuff, who advertised his addiction, and supposed manhood, by the round circle of the snuff can in his back pocket.
You could relatively safely hold a horny toad by his horns, if you were careful not to get spit on. We learned to lay them on their back, and gently stroke their stomach to put them into a daze. They would lie still for a few minutes, then leap up and run off. My brother heard you could do the same with alligators, and tried it somewhere to some success. However, when the gator woke up, he didn’t exactly scamper off like the horny toad did, but my brother could be pretty quick for his size.
We also caught scaly lizards and a striped lizard whose tail could break off. At the State Fair, if you could successfully toss a nickel into a bowl or plate, you could win a small lizard on a thread and safety pin to wear on your shirt. They were supposed to change color, but never seemed to reach the UT orange that we wore back then, and most didn’t live too long. But lizards were cool, except for maybe Gila Monsters, those fabled beasts from the Sonoran Desert that could kill you with one bite (as I was told). There were none available locally, so we had to pretend to find one when needed to get out of desperate straits with outlaws. The mad dash and skittering of a lizard can still get my heart racing until I see it’s not a snake.
I read something a long time ago that tried to explain our innate fear of snakes by theorizing that humans evolved in tidal zones. Although most snakes are not really dangerous to humans, eels encountered in the ocean could be. I admit to being pretty spooked by eels, too, so maybe there’s something to it. By the same author, our fear of spiders is a misplaced fear of crabs. Spiders are not a big deal to me, even though in Texas we could encounter tarantulas in lots of places. I do like crab, though, preferably steamed.
My son told me that humans are afraid of creatures with a different number of legs than us or our normal animals. So any creature that doesn’t have two or four legs is suspect. That covers most insects for more than four, and all the snakes with less than two. I’m not sure where the walking catfish I saw in Florida fit in, but they were pretty spooky.
In my neighborhood now, we have plenty of garter snakes that show up in the grass and under bushes. Although they make me nervous, and I had to get my son’s girlfriend to pick one up that was stuck on the patio, I’m not the most fearful around. One neighbor will mow her yard only if she is wearing her high rubber boots (boots and shorts in mid-summer makes a fetching scene). Another neighbor called us a few years ago when our cat was seen coming up her back walk with a writhing snake in its mouth. She ran around the house shutting all the doors and windows before calling us to the rescue.
As a camp counselor in Texas, we constantly watched to make sure the kids were safe, but we also tried to have “wildlife moments” where we could teach the kids about nature. It’s hard to pretend indifference when a ten-year old approaches you in your bunk, sticks a snake in your face, and asks if it’s poisonous. Once I got under control, I tried to carefully explain to the camper that had it been poisonous, he’d never have made it back to the cabin. (Though I was tempted, I didn’t say that shoving a snake in your counselor’s face could be deadly, regardless of the kind of snake.)
Once, the kid that slept in the bunk above mine woke up screaming and hanging out of his bed. He had dreamed that a giant spider was in his bed with him. I woke him up and took him to safety, then took his bed apart to demonstrate that there was no spider there. When he and the other kids had gone back to sleep, I lay in my bunk and began to think about that spider. If there had really been one, it could have easily dropped down into my bed when I took apart the one above. After long minutes of trying to convince myself that I didn’t feel a tickling, crawly thing against my leg or arm, I got up and took apart my bed. I saw nothing, so went back to bed. As you know, what you can’t see can’t hurt you.
If you’re going to spend any time outdoors, even in the relative domesticity of your backyard, you’re going to encounter nature. Sometime it’s beautiful and awesome; sometimes it’s just there or adds to your maintenance chores; and sometimes it can be really terrifying – I mean, exercising, er, character-building… depends on who’s watching you.