By Harry Chase, Wicked Local Mansfield, link to original post
My teenage nephew and I were hiking in upstate New York’s Adirondacks some years ago when we invented a snake story. We’d met three nervous hikers, all (judging by their accents) from the Big Apple, who asked the same question: “Are there poisonous snakes in these mountains?”
After three times answering “No” (not quite true, incidentally), we cooked up a different response for the next urbanite who inquired. “Well,” we planned to say, “only the deadly Gaboon viper. A mere fleck of its saliva will send you into convulsions, paralysis and an agonizing death.”
Good thing we didn’t meet another questioner, though I don’t think we‘d have insulted even the most gullible tourist with such a tale. But for the rest of our hike we had fun elaborating on the story.
I’ve always wondered why so many otherwise rational folks hate and fear snakes. True, there are venomous serpents that deserve cautious respect. Massachusetts (though not Mansfield) has two such species, the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead.
The former lives in isolated rocky areas on Great Blue Hill and in several other spots kept secret by herpetologists. The copperhead is almost never seen. I’m told that no one ever has died from the bite of a Bay State serpent.
The juvenile milk snake with its reddish markings is sometimes taken for a copperhead. I recall when a newspaper in a nearby town front-paged a photo of a firefighter posing like a big game hunter with a “copperhead” he’d vanquished. Next day’s paper pictured a zoo keeper smilingly fondling an identical but live serpent, which he correctly identified as a harmless milk snake.
A Mansfield woman once told me, with an embarrassed laugh, how she’d found a garter snake in her basement. She summoned her husband, who took one look and phoned the police. The cop, on arrival, was equally timid.
All three were standing around the inoffensive creature when a daughter arrived home from middle school and clobbered it with a shovel.
Even my land survey boss, an unflappable ex-Big Ten football lineman, asked me in some trepidation whether the swampy woods through which we were cutting a line harbored poisonous snakes. When I said, “Probably not,” he exclaimed “Probably! Even one poisonous snake is too many.”
Some people who walk in Mansfield’s woods tell me they avoid swamps “because that’s where snakes live.” This old swamp Yankee has never seen a snake in a swamp. The water snake, incorrectly called water moccasin, lives in our streams and often ventures on dry land but not swamps.
One local serpent that looks evil but isn’t is the hog-nosed snake, also called the puff adder. Disturb it, and it hisses, inflates like a bicycle tire and even strikes but won’t bite. If that bluff doesn’t scare you off, it rolls on its back and plays dead.
Some non-poisonous snakes will bite. My uncle Bill Chase, a state game warden, was demonstrating how a four-foot blacksnake, if coiled and placed on its back, wouldn’t move as long as it stayed in that position.
The snake took a dim view of the proceedings, sank its teeth into the skin between Bill’s thumb and forefinger and began chewing. Bill gently worked its teeth free, viewed the pin-pricks on his hand and said, “It’s like a kitten’s bite.” Luckily he never encountered the alleged 12-foot blacksnakes reported by a Mansfield character who’d imbibed too much pink-elephant juice.
Maybe people hate snakes because the Bible tells how a serpent sweet-talked Eve into nibbling the forbidden fruit. As punishment, God cursed the serpent and told it, “Upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”
I don’t think snakes deserved that fate. Besides, this is the Chinese Year of the Snake. Let’s live and let live.