The Snake Tree, by Alexis Grange
Deep Roots Farm, Yellow Point, Vancouver Island
The full moon is due at midnight. That afternoon, GoldenRose, my friend Noël and I are bent over an onion bed, harvesting and chatting with each other. All of a sudden Goldie breaks the conversation. “Look at the snakes! There are two, oh three gardener snakes!” she says, all excited.
We turn around and rush to the fence where we see two snakes disappearing into the bush.
“Have you guys ever seen so many snakes on the farm?” Goldie asks with a mischievous smile. About to reply, we raise our heads and see another long, black, yellow and red body slithering around a branch of the plum tree in front of us.
“Look, there is one in the tree!” shouts Goldie. “And two! Three! And another on the blackberry bush! And one on the ground coming out the onion bed!” we call out, as we spot more and more. We count as many as ten snakes at the same time.
“Wow, this one has a frog in its mouth!” Noël cries out, impressed by the scene. We look down to see the body and legs of a Pacific tree frog in the process of being swallowed by the tiny head of the snake. I reach for my camera and click a few pictures. They seem clear, and I’m excited to have recorded this unusual phenomenon.
“This is the first time I’ve seen so many snakes at one time in my life!” says Goldie, although she has worked on her farm for two years. I squat down to take more pictures, looking carefully around to make sure that I’m not stepping on a snake, or that one doesn’t fall on my head and try to eat me. I haven’t seen many snakes in my life in France, and they still feel dangerous. A minute has passed, and we are feeling incredulous, our minds trying to analyse the weird happening. “What’s going on?” we ask each other. “They are not even afraid of us, they are crawling right beside us”, Noël observed.
“I think they are hunting!” says Noël, sounding quite sure of himself. Goldie has no idea. “I hope this is not a bad thing for my garden”, she says with concern.
“It looks like a snake invasion. There are dozens of them!” I continue, “I wonder when they are going to stop showing up?”
Not sure about any of our theories, and feeling overwhelmed by the mystery, we stay there observing, like a good audience. They effortlessly glide on the leaves of the bush like a bird flies in the sky. Most are going round and up and down, like dancers in a small ballet. Soon we understand that the same snakes are appearing at different spots. They disappear inside the bush and reappear sliding up and around the vertical branches of the plum tree. After five minutes Goldie and Noël go back to work while I stay watching, mesmerized by the scene. I‘m feeling that something unique, much bigger than us, is unfolding before our eyes and I don’t want to lose a crumb of it. I’m an observer, but at the same time I feel like touching one. I reach for the tail of a snake passing unworried on the ground, but at the moment of catching it my arm softened and failed to grasp it. The thrill of trying to catch one makes my heart pulse faster, fear and excitement starting to slither inside me like a spicy venom.
“They can’t bite you”, Goldie had assured me earlier, but my mind is stronger than my will and I’m afraid of grasping it.
I go back to the vegetable beds to finish my shift, volunteering one more hour in the garden. My mind gets obsessed with the snake gathering, and the idea of catching one. After I finish working I stop at the plum tree on my way to the house. They are still here; I’m standing shaking in front of the spectacle. I watch for five minutes and then do a quick search on my Smartphone with the words “gardener snake gathering”.
The research shows me that it is usual for Common Garter snakes to gather in some places where they will hide for the winter; they usually sleep together in cracks in the bedrock. I find a video of the “Narcisse snake pit gathering” in Manitoba, the biggest in the world, with tens of thousands of them. The video shows children playing with the snakes. I feel like an idiot. If children can do it so can I!
I spot another slithering on the bush. It seems curious about me, half of its body hanging into the void in my direction. It looks into my eyes, its red tongue rocking in and out. It’s a weird feeling to face a snake looking at me exactly at the level of my eyes. I don’t dare to try a catch. Soon another weaves around the first one, like a loving partner getting into bed. Now these two snakes move their heads towards me. I’m intimidated! But I’m determined, and I choose another snake to catch.
This one is a good specimen, around sixty centimetres long. I stare at its multicoloured body, visualize myself reaching for it it, and let my hand grab it for real. A straight jet of yellowish liquid flies into the air. My right hand is wet, and a lingering odour reaches my nostrils. This is definitely the famous liquid that these snakes secrete to get rid of their assailants. Goldie had told me about it earlier, but I had forgotten. It stinks like a rotten egg with Indian spices. I keep holding the snake, its head down in the grass, and its tail clasps my finger. After fifteen long seconds, it finally starts to calm down. I grasp the snake with my two hands to support its body. Garter snake caught! It is now resting comfortably on my left hand, while my right hand tenderly holds its tail.
Proud of myself, I take it on a small tour of the farm, showing it to my friends. The snake poses for a picture with me, and I smile, realizing that I have challenged one of my deepest fears. I have demystified my belief that all snakes are dangerous.
The video on YouTube says that a good snake population is a sign of a healthy environment. In this case the garter snakes don’t bite, so there is no worry. I would like to have held it for a while longer, but after a few minutes it starts shaking its body like a cat that wants to be free. In the next five minutes I’ll catch two more snakes and free them.
When I go back to the house my body is still vibrating with strong emotions. I sit on a sofa on the deck overlooking the garden, my urge to catch a snake satisfied, my head filled with incredible remembering and new knowledge.
That midnight, I was once again relaxing on the deck.
An odd call pierces the night: “Hu hu hu hu, hu hu hu huuuu.” Noël and I look at each other with big eyes. “It’s probably an owl”, we say.
We hear it flying in the nearby forest. Then we hear the sound of dead leaves moving and branches cracking. Something else, something heavy. But this one will need to remain a mystery.
Alexis Grange is a seasonal worker from Chambery, France. With his friend Noël Vidoni he took the summer off to learn about farming and permaculture, and to see Canada’s beauty.