Making acquaintance with snakes

Growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand, a country with no native snakes, I never learned the phobia many people have about these creatures. Since moving to California I’ve learned to keep rattlesnakes at a respectful distance, but can only listen, fascinated, as friends tell stories of the poisonous slithery ones of their childhoods.

Our family had a fine introduction to the harmless garter snake in 1972, when we went camping at Big Sur during spring break. I tell about it in a letter to parents:

baby garter snake

A baby garter snake. Image by Gary Nafis, from

27 April 1972
We had a lovely trip to Big sur. The coastline there is really spectacular – a romantic tumble of cliffs and waves, with the highway carved out of the side of the cliff. …The campground is back in the valley of the Big Sur River, a lush, green, woodsy place, with the river bronze-gold over its boulders. We camped right on the edge of the river, and as you can imagine the kids [our two plus their friend Mark, ages nine, eight and seven] had a ball messing about in the water. … Lots of wildlife for us to observe. One day, coming back from the beach at the mouth of the river, we met a man who had caught a huge garter snake, and was taking it home to his daughter, who collected reptiles. Both he and the snake were very obliging about letting the kids play with it and handle it, and it was a very contemplative, envious trio that walked back across the river meadow where he had found it. It’s interesting to observe the effect of the nature programs they have attended on these kids. A lot of emphasis is put on the phobias and misconceptions that many people have about snakes. The children learn how to watch out for rattlesnakes, but they also learn to value the many other useful and beautiful snakes we have here. Following their example, I even held a snake for the first time, a baby Santa Cruz garter snake that Tony had found by the campsite. A pretty little thing, striped lengthwise yellow and black, and warm and wriggly in the hand.

California scarlet king snake

California scarlet king snake. Image by Gary Nafis, from

We have had other snakes in our lives. In Santa Barbara, where we lived in the late 1970s, a huge king snake took up residence in our garden. Since king snakes eat rattlers, we were happy to make it welcome. Less welcome were the pair of caged garters one of our sons and a visiting friend brought back in guilty triumph from a local pet shop. My son assured me that he would be responsible for feeding and taking care of them. Yeah, right! Fortunately, both snakes managed to escape within a few days.

Here on the Mendocino Coast I often see garter snakes, either on a walking trail or in the garden. I have learned to live with the cycles of nature that make them both predator and prey. Here’s a poem about that:

Learning Detachment

Mirror black, raven on the wall
lifts limp coils of garter snake

its skin striped red and brown
in intricate pattern like a carpet
loomed in some ancient sunlit place

maybe the same snake I saw
near where a tree frog
shiny as sun on a wet spring leaf
leaped into shadow

sadness for lost beauty
rises and dissipates

the snake has eaten

the raven eats

One Response to “Making acquaintance with snakes”

  • Lovely, article, I wish everyone would learn the difference between harmless snakes that enhance the garden and help the plants and venomous snakes that are dangerous. Many people due to phobias kill any snake.

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