Monday, August 07, 2006

Sharing My World With Snakes

The other day I was weeding my tallgrass prairie restoration when I came upon a fair sized copperhead.

This poisonous snake is of the family Viperidae, subfamily Crotalinae (pit vipers), which in the United States also includes rattlesnakes and water moccasins. All inject proteolytic venom through hinged, recurved fangs.

Copperheads have a reputation for being somewhat irritable, perhaps because they tend to strike immediately when cornered or threatened. Mine, clearly not rattled*, was making a deliberate but unhurried departure from the area where I had apparently disturbed him.

From my standpoint, I felt fortunate that in this instance I was on a large mower, perched above a substantial mower deck; I could simply sit and watch. Normally, by contrast, my weeding time is mostly spent on hands and knees in the thick, tall vegetation. I've often wondered how I'd react if I came eyeball to eyeball, at ground level, with a venomous snake--or any snake, for that matter. It's bound to happen someday.

Indeed, I well know that my 120 acres is replete with rattlesnakes and copperheads, and that as I move about the place I'm frequently passing by and through their hangouts and hiding places. I realize that I actually see but a small fraction of the snakes with which I'm in fairly close contact. It can be an unsettling thought.

Because I have the same instinctive, biophobic reaction to snakes as most people*, it's difficult for me to regard them with warmth or affection. I therefore work on cultivating a mostly cerebral appreciation of their ecological importance and rightful presence. All the better if such mental exercise, sufficiently repeated, could eventually lead to some measure of emotional accommodation.

As I see it, I have three choices in how to conduct my life vis à vis snakes: I can retreat from the natural world to the protected domain of pavement, closely cut lawns, and central air conditioning. This is not, for me, a viable option. Or I can destroy whatever poisonous snakes I might encounter. To do so would be arrogant, hubristic, self-centered, ignorant, immature, and ultimately ineffectual. Or finally, having chosen to embrace nature, I can embrace her on her own terms, snakes and all.

*Pun intended.

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


At Mon Aug 07, 09:04:00 PM, Anonymous bert said...

You're willing to embrace nature snakes and all but what about poison ivy? Personally, I will try to eradicate any poison ivy I find.

At Tue Aug 08, 01:30:00 PM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

If indeed you will try to eradicate any poison ivy you find, then don't walk around on my land, because your committment to poison ivy eradication will propel you into a futile lifelong battle that you can't hope to win.

Seriously, poison ivy is a natural constituent of the tallgrass prairie, but it is categorized as being on the "weedy" end of the successional continuum. That means that it will prosper with little need for help or protection from man. You're free to eradicate to your heart's content. In particular, removing it from the immediate vicinity around your house seems a sensible thing to do.

My restoration has copious amounts of poison ivy. That can be problematic when the nonnative weeds I'm trying to hand pull are nestled in a thick patch of the stuff. Luckily, I don't seem to be overly alergic, but I've heard one can become sensitized with repeated exposure.

I'm no expert on poison ivy ecology, but I'm hoping that, as with many native weeds, it will tend to decrease as the vegetative quality of my restoration increases. In general, a high quality prairie tends to have little problem with native weeds because the more "conservative" (in this context that's a technical term) species, once established, tend to easily outcompete the weeds. So my proper approach to poison ivy would be to continue to work on conditions that favor high quality species, not to directly attack the poison ivy.

By the way, did you notice the recent published and reported study on the effects of increased atmospheric C02 levels on posion ivy? The researchers found that under atmospheric conditions expected in the coming century, vegetative growth of poison ivy is dramatically increased (by about 40%, I think), and the intensity of the chemical responsible for the allergic reaction is also increased. More--and more potent--poison ivy!

At Wed Aug 09, 11:27:00 AM, Anonymous bert said...

okay. I RoundUPed the poison ivy on the NW corner of my property, but I'll leave your poison ivy alone.

But what of brown recluses?

I've been cleaning the basement in preparation for Dawn's sister and there are all these tiny spiders that scurry for the cracks when I bring my rag nearby.

What I don't know is whether they are brown recluses or are just brown and reclusive.

At Wed Aug 09, 03:42:00 PM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

Any spider that I find in my house gets squashed.


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