Being raised in the Northeast, I took many stereotypes about the South to heart, and brought them with me when I moved to North Carolina. I expected the KKK in my front yard and snakes in my back, and I was half right.
The South has plenty of snakes, and because I live across the street from a stream and wildlife corridor, I gots me a load of them. This is fine with me, and it has made for lots of interesting wildlife identification projects through the years. But my poor mother has a horrible phobia of snakes, and my move south has not been easy on her.
She tried hard to hide her phobia while my sister and I were growing up, and with the boys she tries even harder. She has taken them to pet store upon pet store and unflinchingly (but unconvincingly) admired the snakes without ever actually looking at them. In sharing her deep love of the outdoors with the boys, she has effectively braced herself so she remains calm should a snake appear. In the Northeast, it’s rare that a snake does appear, but she knew the south would be different.
On her first visit, she came with sleeping bags and tents, and camped out in the backyard with the boys. The boys were pretty pumped about their night in the tent, and the next morning congratulated my Mom on offering a camp-out when we have that five foot Eastern Racer who lives right under the back porch, not ten feet from where she had rested her head! In her grandsons’ eyes she was a whole new kind of brave, but it was months before she visited again, and the camping equipment no longer comes south.
On her next visit she limited her outdoor time with the boys to the paved walking trail that runs for miles beside the stream. She returned from one of these walks with a frozen smile and overly-bright eyes.
“Guess what, Mom, ” she said to me, “we saw a beautiful snake.”
“It was a HUGE Copperhead!” Chorused the boys.
“It was a very beautiful snake, Mom, and we’re going to identify it.” My mother is one of the most animated people I know, and this was said with a strange blend of super cheerfulness and hyper-positive animation, but with a veneer of tightly-wound panic overlying the whole thing.
“It was a COPPERHEAD! A BIG ONE!”
“No, no, Mom,” she said firmly, “It was a very nice snake.”
“Lolly,” one of the boys asked,”Why are you calling her Mom? She’s not your Mom!”
“I’m calling her Mom because she’s your Mom, and it was a very nice snake.”
“IT WAS A COPPERHEAD! And Lolly poked it with a stick to make it get off the trail, but we said ‘LOLLY! That’s a COPPERHEAD!’ But she said it was a nice snake. But it was a Copperhead, and she poked it and threw sticks at it. Wow, Loll, you’re lucky it didn’t KILL you!”
My mother made a strangled sound, and said, “Let’s identify that snake!”
“It was a COPPERHEAD!”
“Mom,” I said, “What did it look like?” My boys know their snakes, and if they are certain it was a copperhead, it probably was.
“Well, Katie. It was beautiful. It was about two feet long, and fat.” She holds her hands apart to indicate the snake was about a foot wide.
“It was a pinkish tan, and had a very pretty pattern on its back.”
“Like an hourglass-y pattern?”
“Mm hmm.” My mother, for all her vast knowledge of nature, can’t identify snakes. She’s never been able to look at them, or even pictures of them. In her world, there are two kinds of snakes: bad, and dead, preferably both. She once refused to go down into the basement until my sister and I had found and removed the snake she had seen. I took ages, because the snake was about two and half inches long, and without realizing she had done so, she had smashed it beyond being recognizable as a snake. Her description of that snake? “Black. Big.”
“Did the snake have a big, wide head, Mom?” I ask.
“Yes, he had a beautiful head, and I poked him off the path.”
Huh. I think my mother has been poking a Copperhead, something anyone who knows anything about snakes would be wary of doing.
I went to the computer and searched our local subspecies of Copperhead, and showed her the image. “It this the snake you played with, Mom?”
“Yes.” This comes out in a cheerful, tight falsetto. ” He was beautiful. That’s our snake, Katie. What kind of snake is that, Mom?”
Bless her, she was trying so hard, and it was so misguided. It’s been years now since my Mom has visited North Carolina during the warm months, and that’s probably a wise decision for someone hoping to avoid snakes.
It’s warming up and getting snaky, and just the other day I saw a sluggish copperhead by the edge of the paved path. It was beautiful.