Snakes Alive! Part One

I miss snakes. Since moving to the city, I haven’t seen but one snake. When we lived in Sugar Land I spotted them weekly and sometimes more often. The dearth of big city snakes hasn’t always been the case. Accounts of the Allen brother’s landing in the swamp included malaria-carrying mosquitoes and poisonous snakes amongst the many dangers. But we’ve become civilized, no more cannibals or quick-sand (except perhaps at the downtown courthouse) and not many snakes.

Growing up in South Houston I enjoyed catching copper-colored grass snakes. I would try to keep them as pets. “Try” because my mother would figure it out and empty my catch-jars. My brothers and I would catch glass-eels, and pipe-fish at the back-water fishing cabin near Galveston, and at home we would find flat-worms under rocks, the kind we would later cut up in biology class. And there were the earthworms.

Once I listened to a hysterical woman describe the reason she could never garden. “It’s those pink snakes everywhere.”

We had good healthy (earthworm laden) soil in Sugar Land.

Earthworms are God’s gift. If it weren’t for them the world would stink something fierce. They eat organic material and turn it into pure, sweet-smelling earth. Thank God for them!

Unlike the flatworms, they do not regenerate if cut in two. They die. An earthworm is intricately made with a gizzard for grinding food because like chickens, they have no teeth. They have a five chamber heart with red blood. Their liver takes up over three-quarters of their body, their stomach and intestines take up the rest. So be careful fellow gardeners with your spade. If seen on the sidewalk, carefully move that earthworm to the grass and out of sight of the early bird. Please.

My first and only sighting of a snake in Houston happened while visiting Rienzi. Rienzi is a mansion like something from an Agatha Christi play, all white limestone curved lines and art deco. They give tours. The gardens are designed by someone famous, but I can’t recollect who. The gardens are proud to be called “very European”. Staircases that lead to avenues, with views at every turn, from clipped lawn to sculpted bushes. All very fancy.

My husband and I had ended our walk through the greenery and were taking the stairs to main-floor ground level when I saw a flash of red out of the corner of my eye.

There, slinking from a raised bed and wiggling across a cement walkway was a coral snake.

In Texas there are garter snakes that are banded with the red, black and yellow so we have a little saying to distinguish between a coral snake (lethal) and the banded garter snake (harmless). All snakes are beneficial, like wine taken in moderation. My thing is that if you kill all the snakes you see you are only leaving more room for the poisonous snakes because there are far more non-poisonous snakes in Texas than poisonous. So chances are the snake you see will not be a poisonous snake. My best advice to you is: if you see a snake, don’t engage it in battle, just run away.

So as I watched this gorgeous red and black and yellow banded snake pass by within a few feet, I recited my little saying. “Red and yellow kill a fellow, red and black safe now, Jack.” This little guy’s yellow bands touched his red bands. This was a genuine coral snake, one of the most lethal of all the poisonous snakes.

I was so thrilled.

I’ve never seen one in the wild. And the ones in cages at the zoo look so washed out and “beat-down”. This one was active and perfectly glossy. Its red was red and its yellow yellow, the colors so bright as to hurt the eyes. It was about twenty inches long, and about as big around as my finger from tip to stern. They can reach as long as three feet but it is rare to see a coral snake much less a really long one. Unlike pit vipers they remain a very slender snake throughout their life, eating small insects and vermin that they can get their tiny mouths around.

There are two types of venomous snakes in America, the pit viper group includes the Copperhead, the rattlesnake, and the water moccasin, and the coral snake. The venom of the pit viper group attacks muscle cells (though some have nerve attacking properties) effectively rotting the cells and doing horrible damage that can lead to loss of limb and even death, the coral snake’s venom like the cobra in other parts of the world, will shut down the nervous system. The Texas Coral snake has two fixed fangs at the front, which means that those fangs can reach just about any part of you that you get near it. The pit-viper’s fangs are hinged. They stay flat with the closed jaws but swing forward when the mouth is opened.

Coral snakes are shy, which is why I was so thrilled to see one. When threatened they curl up and hide their head. I didn’t get near enough to my rare coral snake to make it feel threatened. It squiggled across the walk, up the side of the raised bed of another garden where it disappeared beneath the leaves. Gone forever.

And that’s okay.

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