The Fearsome Garter-Snake


I AM accounted, among my friends, a woman of rare courage. Humanity’s subtlest, most inveterate enemy, the unseen disease-germ, has for me no terrors; I tramp for hours umbrellaless in wind and rain without dread of catching cold; only yesterday I walked calmly into a measles-smitten household; in China I have looked without fear on the body of a coolie lying dead by the wayside. Nor do I flinch in time of misadventure: hooky cows and setting hens I boldly confront; I have ridden a bucking pony through a yellow-jacket’s nest, have been in a motor accident on a lonely road in Asia, four thousand miles from a repair shop, have traveled on an ocean liner when fire smouldered in her cargo of cotton bales, and on a treacherous railway during spring freshets — and this without blenching. Apprehensions of midnight burglars, or the possible manunder-the-bed, trouble me not at all, nor am I haunted by the thought that the maid is about to leave and I may fall downstairs and break a leg. The bugaboos of society do not daunt me: I vote; I occupy a gallery seat at the opera with unruffled enjoyment; a street gown, new this week, has a skirt wide enough for a free step.

A fine picture of an Amazon, is it not? A modern woman emancipated from the shackles of timidity, submission, and superstition which have bound her sex for centuries. And yet in my armor of fearlessness there is a flaw.

As if each crawling specimen were the original one that harbored Satan in Eden, I fear the ‘spirited, sly snake.’ Not necessarily the rattlesnake — him I seldom meet — but the innocuous garter-snake, common in garden, forest, and meadow. There is no poison in his fangs; I am not, like Achilles, vulnerable in the heel; yet, some day, I know, a garter-snake will twine himself about my ankle and my screams will pierce the empyrean.

In my little girlhood I proved by repeated experiments the saying, known of every country child, that ‘a snake s tail does not die until sundown,’ whereupon the snake became for me an object of loathing more uncanny by far than those lizards whose tails fly off at a blow. If Fate had given me an elder brother, if some teasing boy friend had appeared during this period of investigation, my future tremors might all have been spared, for such an one would have taught me, willy nilly, to pick up the reptile by the tail, to let him coil his cold length on my palm. Into my hands, instead, fell a copy of Paradise Lost, illustrated by Dore, and the garter-snake became fixed in my mind forever as an ally of the Evil One, a devouring dragon in the path.

He is so often in the path! — a terror that makes me choose my steps with infinite care in forest and field. In early spring — with us the first wild flowers bloom in February — I stoop to pick a violet, and a garter-snake glides from under my hand. Walking in March on the first warm day, I can spare but fleeting glances for the glories of the fir woods, radiant with yellow violets, white trilliums, and the gay, red bells a-swing on the wild currant; for my eye must be ever on the road where numberless garter-snakes go ‘streaking the ground with sinuous trace.’ In midsummer, by a trout stream, high in the Cascade Mountains, I find a serpent,

In labyrinth of many a round, self-rolled,
His head the midst,

sunning himself on a log where I must stand to cast.

Again, I pause, entranced, in the depth of the forest, listening to a wee, brown wren, warbling rapturously on a stump near by; to a russet thrush, afar in the green aisles, singing his vesper song; I half expect to see a faun caper with a flourish of goat legs from behind the trunk of a tree, I half expect to see some fish-tailed god of the trout rise from behind a boulder in the stream below; then, expectant, charmed with melody, I slide down a steep bank to reach a pool of promise, and my descending heel barely misses a striped reptile coiled on the river’s edge. He crawls away hissing; I try to calm my fears with the facts of evolution. Scientists tell us that the snake is merely a distant cousin of the sweet-voiced wren and russet thrush, beloved of my soul; but the knowledge does not lessen my fright or temper my dislike.

In spring and summer he cumbers the earth. Even in November, when I cut a branch of flaming vine maple in a suburban lot, he is there, drowsing at the base of the shrub, and he slinks away with a rude darting of his forked tongue and a hint of rheumatism in his wriggling motion. Only during our brief and rainy winter may I walk abroad in peace.

Nor is the garter-snake peculiar to America. Chance has led me to many lands and many are the coppers I have given to be quit of rag-clothed beggars accompanied by pet reptiles, harmless yet capable of twining about one’s ankle. Once, in Japan, I made a pilgrimage to a shrine dedicated to some god of pedestrians. It was picturesquely situated on a hillside in a grove of giant cryptomcrias. The god sat framed in hundreds of sandals left as votive offerings: little sandals of toddling children, larger ones of countrywomen, big sandals of men, and one great pair of the size of the seven-league boots. As I gazed, twisting down among them, long, and thick as my arm, came a serpent ; and straightway a miracle of swift walking came to pass.

By good fortune I reached, at last, during my travels, a snakeless Eden. In the blessed island of St. Patrick serpents may not live. Even those of the Dublin Zoo, it is said, pine away and die. In Ireland I sauntered by gently flowdng rivers, through meadows kneedeep with grass, and no fear was in my soul. Old habit, at first, made me walk warily, but there were no snakes in snaky places, and finally the glad freedom was mine of walking with my eyes on the sheep and white-washed cottages and colleens and beech trees and even on the lark aloft, ‘singing at heaven’s gate.’

Since those carefree days, St. Patrick has always seemed to me a man born before his time. What might not that vigorous saint have accomplished in the way of banishing reptiles from America had he been born after Columbus! Why did Dame History grant the gracious gift of St. Patrick to a small, green isle of the sea in the fifth century, when a vast continent inhabited by copper-heads, rattlers, and garter-snakes was to be discovered in the fifteenth ?

Angling is to me the sport of sports, tramping is one of my chief joys, and yet, like Eve, through a serpent I lose Paradise. A son of Adam would doubtless trace this childish cowardice to the long-suffering mother of us all, but Eve’s daughter must refrain. It is an inheritance, a primitive instinct, a useless survival, a kind of mental vermiform appendix; an inheritance, not from Eve, I take it, but from some remote jungle ancestress to whom all serpents were deadly enemies, to be shunned in the open and driven from the cave that was her home. To this primeval woman, this occupant of sunless caverns, I owe that little twilit corner of my brain where timidity and superstition dwell, where lurks the fear of garter-snakes.

Yet I am accounted a woman of rare courage.