Befriending Dangerous Neighbors

How do we learn to live with those who might do us harm? What if some of our neighbors are dangerous? Why wouldn’t we simply move away; or cause them to move away; or try to do them in? How do we balance caution with compassion?

Very occasionally an all-too-human friend or neighbor has become sufficiently unhinged to be dangerous. More often, however, it’s been one of the other-than-human creatures with whom we share this land who has tested our willingness to be neighborly. When the path that Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow are following leads into a dark wood — in the film version of Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz — their fears run away with them.

“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” they exclaim. “Lions and tigers and bears!”

We’ve never seen, outside of our dreams, any tigers at Light Morning. By slightly paraphrasing Dorothy’s fearful refrain, though, we can easily relate to it: “Lions and serpents and bears, oh my! Lions and serpents and bears!” Stories about our encounters with mountain lions and black bears may be shared later. This story is about learning to live with venomous serpents.

Timber Rattlesnakes

A timber rattlesnake under restraint

“Robert! Snake!”

Joyce’s call is faint but distinct. I drop what I’m doing, grab the snake-catching gear from the woodshed, and run up to Snowberry, the small cabin that Joyce has been prepping for two friends who will arrive this afternoon.

“Where?” I ask.

She points to a patch of dry grass, dead leaves, and small branches several feet away. I don’t see anything at first. Then my eyes focus on a large timber rattlesnake, its colors merging perfectly with the debris on the forest floor. “I was clearing up around Snowberry,” Joyce tells me, “and nearly picked him up as one more branch to toss aside. I was standing right next to him before I saw him. He never rattled.”

The snake-catching gear

I pause to admire the beauty of this creature. Then, regretfully, I take the long-handled sponge mop and press it against the snake’s body just behind its head. Passing this tool to Joyce, I loosen up the noose at the end of an old broom handle, slide it over the snake’s head, and gently tighten it.

Joyce can now release her hold on the snake. It coils up and watches me as I remove the cell phone from my pocket to take its portrait. Only after half coaxing, half dragging it into a 5-gallon bucket and securing the lid does the rattlesnake begin to rattle.

The rattlesnake released

Then I walk our dangerous neighbor several hundred yards — a mere fig leaf’s distance away — to a small clearing in the woods on the other side of Temple Hill. I carefully remove the lid of the bucket and start to upend it. Gravity eases the large snake back to its home on the floor of the forest. It lies still and extended for a few moments, giving me time for another photo. Then it slowly slides into the underbrush with a lithe and sinuous grace.

* * *

A small sign near the sidewalk at our Friends Meetinghouse in Roanoke says, “Love your neighbor. No exceptions.” It’s a challenging reminder. The Sermon on the Mount, however, takes the admonition a giant step further.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” [Matthew 5: 43-48 NIV]

Luke’s version has Jesus telling the crowd, “To you who are listening I say: Love your enemies… Do to others as you would have them do to you… Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” [Luke 6:27-36 NIV]

Whenever we become willing to listen, our venomous neighbors give us an opportunity to put mercy into practice. But we’re up against an ancient curse. How do we read the dream-like riddle of God condemning the serpent in Genesis? “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” [Genesis 3:15 NIV]

* * *

On an early morning walk with Joyce many years ago, we came upon a timber rattlesnake lying dead on the gravel road. I carried it to an open glade in the woods and laid it there as a gesture of respect. Later we learned that a neighbor had deliberately run over the rattlesnake while driving to Light Morning. Then she had backed up and run over it again to make sure it was dead. She told me she didn’t know why she had done it. It was as though she had gone on automatic pilot.

Most of our friends and neighbors reflexively do the same: if something’s dangerous, kill it. In many parts of the country, the timber rattlesnake has become a threatened species due to habitat loss and human persecution. We mourn the disappearance of monarch butterflies; but not of rattlesnakes.

Light Morning’s confrontational journey with crotalus horridus (the “dreadful rattler”) began soon after we arrived here 45 years ago. Larry caught the first one we found, using an improvised noose. Then we transported it down the road in the back of a pickup truck and released it beside an uninhabited portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The following summer we inadvertently caught a second timber rattlesnake. This one strayed into a Havahart trap that we had set for a woodchuck who was feasting on our garden. The snake was so large that it couldn’t squeeze through the wire mesh of the sprung trap. We spent most of the day trying to decide what to do with it. After many hours of deliberation, we simply let it go.

Ron inspecting rattlesnake in trap

I no longer recall why we did so. Our decision probably grew out of the countercultural ethos of the times. We were sickened by the mounting “body counts” in Vietnam and were haunted by the forced relocation of the Cherokees from their homelands in this bioregion to faraway Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. And we were beginning to sense some of the deeper implications of ecology. How should we treat our more dangerous neighbors, if, as a then-popular folk song put it, “all God’s critters got a place in the choir”?

Eastern Copperheads

An early copperhead awaits relocation

The other — and far more frequently seen — species of venomous snakes we share this land with is the eastern copperhead. Like the timber rattlesnake, the copperhead is an ambush predator that chooses a suitable location and waits motionless for small rodents to come along. Neither species will harm you unless you happen to be careless and/or unlucky enough to step on one.

I’ve had two close encounters with copperheads.

One morning in May I was scything on Temple Hill. The dew was cool on my bare feet. The scythe blade had just been honed. My rhythmical swing was effortless. The next thing I knew my scythe lofted a large copperhead into the air. It had been lying unseen in the tall grass just in front of me. The snake landed to my left in two pieces, its head cleanly severed from its body. I felt sorrow for the sudden death of such a beautiful creature. It’s the only snake I have ever killed.

The other close encounter was on the path to Buzzards Rock. I was reaching behind a large round of firewood to move it off the path. As I pulled it toward me, I saw that my fingers were inches away from a copperhead that had been lying on the far side of the round. A sudden wave of fear surged through me and I jumped back.

I’m not normally afraid of snakes, so my reflexive adrenaline rush caught me by surprise. Acting on impulse, I found a nearby fallen branch and gently but firmly pinned the copperhead to the ground. Very carefully, I took hold of the snake just behind its triangular head. Then, using my other hand to support its body, I lifted it up, carried it to the community shelter, and sat down in a comfortable chair. It was time to become better acquainted with a neighbor who had frightened me.

Most people who visit Light Morning are fearful of snakes to one degree or another. As part of their orientation, I show them identifying pictures of a rattlesnake and a copperhead and encourage them to be aware of their surroundings when they walk in tall grass or are out in the woods. I also ask if they’d like to explore their feelings about snakes by spending some time with a black rat snake.

If they say yes, I keep my eyes out for one of these large (4 to 6 feet long) non-venomous snakes. When I see one, I pick it up and invite the visitor to come as near to it as they’d like. Different visitors have different comfort zones — from a hesitant one-finger touch, to holding the snake themselves and letting it drape around their neck, and everything in between. For most of them, it would be the first time they had ever touched a snake. It often became a high point of their visit.

So even though I had held quite a few snakes before, sitting in an easy chair with one that had fangs and venom was a new experience. I admired the copperhead’s beautiful coloration, knew that its bite could be painful, and spent a long time looking into its eyes.

Copperheads and rattlesnakes have narrow vertical pupils. Scientists say that’s because they’re ambush predators that hunt both day and night. Cats have vertical pupils, too. But I couldn’t imagine stroking a pet copperhead affectionately while it lay curled up purring in my lap. The vertical pupils of this creature I was holding somehow seemed to be alien; not at all like the familiar round eyes of a hummingbird, a raccoon, or a newt.

After sitting with the copperhead for an hour or so, I walked it back to where it had surprised me and let it go. That’s something we eventually learned from the herpetologists — if you take a snake too far from its home territory you’re likely condemning it to death. For it will no longer know the best places to find food or where to den up for the winter. That’s why we mostly leave our rattlesnakes and copperheads where we find them, or only move them a cosmetic distance away.

Spending time with this particular copperhead, however, was an important step in the long journey of learning to befriend our venomous neighbors. They play a needful role in our local ecosystem and have at least as much right to live on this land as we do. They also teach us to walk with a greater measure of respect, humility, and awareness. We have gradually come to believe that coexisting peacefully with our neighbors, including those who may be dangerous, is a desirable possibility.

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