Tag Archives: Snakes

Wait, snakes wear stockings?

A younger and more reckless me used to say ‘garden snake’ when I meant ‘garter snake’. What’s the different between a garden snake and a garter snake? There is no recognized group of snakes called garden snakes. A garden snake is any ole snake you might find in your garden – be it a corn snake, a milk snake or a deadly black mambe. A garter snake is a group of snakes belonging to the genus Thamnophis. How did my older, more considerate self remember the difference? I thought of a snake wearing a garter belt to hold up its stockings. Well, stocking. The most common garter snake is the eastern garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis. It is harmless and only likes to eat frogs, tadpoles, and insects – not people who can’t remember its name.

Here is a garter snake in Williamsburg, Virginia, that surprised me while I was hunting frogs outside of Jamestown Pies while I waited for my pizza to cook (frog hunting is an activity of opportunity). 

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And here is one from Newbury, Massachusetts, that emerge just as spring was happening. It was still cool and he let me lay inches from him and take his picture. I made sure to get his good side.

Common Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, Newbury, Massachusetts (6)

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It began with a snake. Or did it?

Newbury, Massachusetts

My career in science used to begin with a snake, now it may begin with a lie.

The snake is a garter snake. I have known this snake since I was 8-years-old when Mama bought me a book on snake identification. She bought it after I brought home a baby copperhead in my pocket. She knew I wasn’t going to stop bringing home snakes, so she wanted to make sure I knew which ones to bring home and which ones to leave behind.

I have told this ‘copperhead-in-my-pocket’ anecdote for two decades now. I’ve used it in essays and in job interviews as a watershed moment in my development as an ecologist.

But it may be a lie.

Last month I was sitting in an Asian restaurant in Falmouth, Massachusetts, re-reading Old Yeller (I mean, where would you re-read a classic from your childhood?). The narrator, a teenage boy, Travis, describes how his little brother, Arliss, has a penchant for bringing home snakes and frogs. I nodded remembering all the animals I brought home as a kid.

Then I stopped eating my cashew chicken with brown rice when I read the following:

“And once he turned out of his pocket a wadded-up baby copperhead that nearly threw Mama into spasms. We never did figure out why the snake hadn’t bitten him…”

Had I torn a thread from Old Yeller‘s story and wove it into my own? Was this anecdote I’ve told for years a lie?

Mama doesn’t remember the ‘copperhead-in-the-pocket’ story, but she does remember buying the paperback book on snakes. And she remembers books on dinosaurs and fish. She remembers me bringing home snakes, snapping turtles, crawdads, fish, frogs, bugs, and spiders. But not a copperhead in my pocket, baby or otherwise.

Did little Arliss’s life mimic mine or did I steal his?

I will never be able to tell you for sure . All I can tell you is that the snake in front of me is a garter snake. And I know this because Mama bought me a book on snakes when I was 8.

Or 9.

Or maybe I was 10.