Saturday, July 7, 2012

Moving the Snake

I had to move a rattlesnake the other morning.

Last year I killed two of them.

I didn’t like killing them. I’m not real keen on killing much of anything. The first one was near the wheelbarrow out by the goat-pen. Our neighbor had made a noose which, at the
end of a safely long pole, could be placed around the snake and tightened, so that we could move the snake further from the house. It worked fine, except for two problems: when I tightened it the wire cut into the snake, wounding him; and there was no way to loosen it without putting my hands right where the angry snake was. I had no choice but to pull the noose tighter, and eventually just cut the snake into two. One half kept writing for a surprisingly long time.  Dael cried.  I shot video.

A few months later there was another snake right by the back door. It was dusk, and he startled me. I decided he was just too damned close to the door, and beat him to death.

I didn’t like doing that.

Well, part of me probably did like it: the snake had startled me, he was a potential danger to us. Take that! But mostly I didn’t like it. Felt oddly sad.

Later I reread Keith Wilson’s poem about the old prospector and the rattlesnake living beneath the prospector’s hut:

. . . . . . . . Kill him? Why the hell
do that? He’s got a right to live, ain’t he?
Besides, I always know he’s there, down under
the boards, hear him move every once in a while,
and there’s worse critters than snakes
lots worse than snakes . . ."

Our neighbor takes that view. The neighbor just beyond him, who says they’ve seen eight rattlers in three years, takes a different view. He shoots ‘em. Can’t blame him; but we’d prefer not to, if we can avoid it. Then again, he’s got a dog to be concerned about.

This morning Dael called to me that the cat had found the rattlesnake again. This had happened a couple of times in the last few weeks. The snake coiled and hissed, and the cat studied him quizzically, looking too dumb to be afraid but just uncertain enough not to pounce.

A few weeks ago, under the wooden deck, watching the cat
We couldn’t chance letting this happen again, so I borrowed the neighbor’s new and improved snake-noose. Dael had placed an overturned plastic garbage can near the snake, because sometimes a snake will go into the can, seeking safety in its relative darkness. This snake wasn’t having any of that, though. When I tried to encourage him by prodding him with the end of the snake-noose, he started moving pretty fast toward the rocks.

I tried to get the noose around him, but he was too quick. The other time, the snake was simply moving slowly in a straight line, and placing the noose in front of him, so that he slithered into it, was a piece of cake. Not this time.

When he reached the rocks he turned and coiled again, rattling his usual warning. I had to try several times, but eventually got the noose on him, about a foot or so from his head, and held him up. Dael set the garbage can upright, and I dropped him into it, loosened the noose, and put the top on. The snake wasn’t real happy, but he was very much alive.

Dael and the neighbor discussed where I ought to take the critter. Experts say rattlesnakes don’t travel more than about a half-mile from where they’re born; and unless the snake is young, taking him outside his known territory will kill him. I’m not too sure why, but that’s the generally-accepted wisdom of folks who know more about it than I do.

But a half-mile in any direction would put him in someone else’s yard, which was also not too good an idea. I thought about driving him over to Dripping Springs Road, and up that until I was nearly on a line with our place, which would be a six-mile drive but only put the snake a mile or so from home, as the snake slithers. I got outvoted. They suggested I just move him into the big arroyo at the other end of our property, and hope he’d be happy there. If he came back over here, I could take him further away the next time.

So I hulked the garbage can across the desert as directed. I took off the top and put the can on its side, with its open top facing away from me. When he didn’t immediately emerge, I picked the can up and swung it so that he’d fall out, a sufficient distance away from me that neither of us would feel compelled to do anything drastic. He landed in a defensive coil, hissing at me. I told him he’d be all right where he was, and walked back to the house.

A friend says that snakes recall where they were captured, and the snake won't return to the same portion of his territory.  The friend's wife says he will, because we feed birds and attract critters, indirectly providing a buffet for the snake.   Me, I don't know.

I do reckon that every home in the New Mexico desert oughtta have two things: that volume of Keith Wilson’s Collected Poems and a snake-noose.

For those who may be interested, here's the full Keith Wilson poem:

            The Old Man & His Snake

The two lived there, almost together –
he in the shack, the snake below under
the warped floorboards in the cool darkness
cut by rays of light from the lamp above.

A thick Diamondback, nearly six feet long,
it moved out in moonlight to stalk rabbits
and rats. Out his window the old man pointed;
"There he goes, not enough to feed him around
here no more. Ain’t had a rat or a mouse
in near two years. He’s the reason, Old

The two of them, growing older, keeping
careful distances from each other, geographies
of agreement (the old man stayed in at night,
the snake never went out in the day . . .)

The old man pointed to his chamberpot. "Bought
that to keep from tangling with him. Can’t use
the outhouse at night. Kill him? Why the hell
do that? He’s got a right to live, ain’t he?
Besides, I always know he’s there, down under
the boards, hear him move every once in a while,
and there’s worse critters than snakes
lots worse than snakes . . ."

                                              – for Lem Lyons

Reading it this time the name at the end sounded familiar, because I’d just leafed through several poems on the way to getting this one copied in here. One was:

                       Lem Lyons

When I get as old as he was,
I sure hope I hang on to the same graces.
Prospector, hermit, he always made me
welcome when I hiked across the mesa.

Fixed me coffee, keeping one blue eye
on the falling sun and just on time
he’d say I’d better be heading home
and I always made it – as the shadows
led ahead of me I would see the light
in my mother’s window, the pale aura
of her coaloil lamp on dusty glass.

I don’t know when he died. I was gone.

So the old man, Lem, was an old man when Keith was a boy, 80 years ago or so.  Now Keith is more than two years dead.   

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