Robert L. Fried: To kill a snake

  • A Northern water snake, photographed in Ottawa, Ontario, in 2012. Beades / Wikimedia Commons

For the Monitor
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

I killed a snake. Chopped it in half with a hoe. It was a species known as the Northern water snake, black with subtle red bands, fairly widespread and not endangered.

Pretty in its own way, and harmless, it posed no threat other than a psychological one, and immediately I felt bad about it. But not that bad. It was a choice I had to make.

My wife (who has no such phobia) told me after I had tried to discourage its presence by giving the snake a gentle whack with a long stick, “Either make peace with it or kill it, but don’t make it suffer.”

Its fate was decided by returning to sun itself on the dock at our pond, right at the point where the ladder dips into the water to allow swimmers to climb out onto the floating dock. It was a territorial dispute, and I decided I was going to do whatever it took to be King of the Dock.

I’m not a total faunanthropist when it comes to wildlife on our pond. We live in rough harmony with the beavers that keep damming the pond outflow by night after I’ve opened it up to allow water through by day. And years ago we moved a huge snapping turtle, one that had fretfully inhabited our children’s dreams, by lifting it into a large cooler and transporting it 7 miles to another pond.

But, believe me, I’d rather face the 3-inch jaws of a snapping turtle than the unnerving gyrations of a snake.

So one day, around noon, as I approached the pond on the 30-foot ramp that connects the land with the floating dock (our little pond is entirely surrounded by shrubbery that extends well out over the water), I could see the snake lying just where it had lain several times before. I grabbed the hoe I had left there just in case and, relying on the snake’s poor eyesight, I crept slowly and quietly up the ramp and onto the dock.

I was afraid (also maybe just a little hopeful) that the slight rocking my presence caused would alert the snake before I came in range, but there was a good breeze blowing and the snake was used to slight movement of the water.

I raised the hoe above my head and brought it down suddenly, hoping to chop its head off and kill it instantly. At the last moment, the snake began to flee, so the hoe cut him just about in half. He (I’m assuming it was a “he”) made no sound as he fell into the water and, after a second or two of writhing, he sank.

If you are still reading this, you must be asking why I made the choice to make my first snake kill in my 75 years on Earth. Snakes give me the creeps. Always have, especially the harmless ones, like garter snakes and water snakes.

I don’t know – it’s not that I fear they will attack or bite me. It’s just the way they move, something in their slithering motion that yanks a particular nerve in my spinal column and makes me jump in a way that nothing else does.

I am, however, fascinated by snakes and, if I know in advance that I will see one, in the wild or in captivity, I won’t miss the chance.

As a child, my fear of snakes was sometimes enough to keep my out of the woods, but gradually as I matured, I’ve overcome this (though some who know me will point out that they are still waiting for me to “mature”). I even once allowed a snake to wrap itself around my arm.

It was in 1962 and I, a student at City College in New York, was working evenings in the mailroom off the lobby of a residential hotel in Greenwich Village. A resident came in off the street, holding a shoebox. She placed it on the counter, as I brought the mail to her, and asked me if I wanted to see her new shoes. When she took the cover off the shoebox, there was a very small boa constrictor.

She took it out and it slowly encircled her arm. Since its movements were very gradual, it did not have the same neurological effect on me as the garter snakes I had grown up with, and I eagerly watched it up close.

When she asked if I would like to hold it, I tentatively agreed, and so it briefly became my companion. It so happened that my dad, who was a dentist practicing on the Lower East Side, had arranged to come by after his office closed so that we could have a few beers at McSorley’s Ale House. He was quite amused to see me with the boa.

My wife and I traveled last winter to the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica to attend a weeklong workshop on “mindfulness.” I half-joked that I was sure to get bitten by a Fer-de-Lance, a very poisonous viper that inhabits the country’s wildest province. In fact the lodge where we stayed warned us not to venture off the paths at night and always to keep a flashlight with us. Turns out that one of our guides did get attacked while hiking on his day off and had to be airlifted to a hospital.

But that is neither here nor there.

I feel very bad for the snake I killed. He was just asserting his rights to our little pond, and I decided that my rights to be free of the fear of his unanticipated appearance trumped his right to sun himself on our dock.

And, after all, I had given him several warnings. One perhaps mitigating factor is that in his dying he disgorged a small frog that he had recently swallowed. This little frog, looking quite dazed but otherwise okay, sat still on the dock, near where the snake had met his end, until it went on its way.

I am reminded of a poem by D.H. Lawrence called simply “Snake.” Lawrence is in Sicily, and finds a snake at his water trough when he comes to fill his pitcher. He watches it, fascinated, but in the end throws a stick at it, as it glides into its hole:

But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.

Writhed like lightening, and was gone

Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,

At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.

I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!

I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross

And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,

Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,

Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords

Of life.

And I have something to expiate:

A pettiness. (1928)

A lovely poem, indeed, and a lesson in sensitivity. But I really don’t want my snake to come back.

(Robert L. Fried of Concord is a retired educator who is now a writer, gardener and tinkerer. He can be reached by email at rob.fried@gmail.com.)