On the law of unintended consequences: a story of hubris

WARNING: If you have a fear of snakes, or just plain don’t want to read about them, then check back in a day or two.

I often kid myself into thinking that I (as opposed to most other humans) live in as much harmony with nature as I possibly can. This of course is a massive self-delusion. I am human, therefore, my lifestyle-slash-existence is the least harmonious with nature than any other creature’s on this planet. It is true I may cultivate some natural, non-human things, but my preferred “nature” is a list of maybe 200 plants and five animal species that I brought here myself. All other things are either in my way (weeds, hawks, voles, raccoons and opossums) or tolerated (sparrows, deer) or welcome (all other birds, most other mammals). Snakes are in the “welcome” category.

I first saw a snake on the property by first seeing a snake skin, shed a few feet away from a compost pile, a few years back. It was a big skin. Cool, I thought: a snake will keep the vole population in check. I of course never put two and two together and thought the skin’s proximity had anything to do with the compost pile. Ahem. A blue racer (about 5′ long) was living in the pile, and when I turned the pile I found him/her and screamed like the girl that I am.

Fast-forward to last year. I found another snake, this time a dead one: another blue racer. It had tangled itself in the deer netting that I had erected as chicken-proof fencing around the greenhouse beds. I felt awful.

Okay, now this year. Mother’s Day around here is Leave El Alone All Day To Garden Day. It was to rain all day but hey, that’s alright. I have a greenhouse to garden. So I armed myself with a shovel and some task buckets (I planned on evicting the herb garden along the back wall) and set to work. I moved first to the far corner of the greenhouse to begin the chores and…caught in that same deer netting, which until now, was used to deter voles, was A WHOLE BUNCH of snakes.

I did not scream. The small part of my brain, the residual prey-animal part, was definitely spooked though. I sighed deeply, then went inside to tell Tom about it, and convey how awful I felt. Because I did feel awful: no, I did not foresee that snakes could get into the greenhouse; it’s pretty well sealed against voles. But, in the back of my mind, I knew (like finding the skin near the compost pile) that it was a possibility, and that that netting, if it was doing any good at all against voles, was potentially harmful to snakes.

Three blue racers were trapped in it. Agh: not only did I kill three animals in their prime, I probably killed off another generation. What little I know about snakes is that spring is mating season and snakes, being solitary creatures, are never near each other except for this important purpose. So I clipped the deer netting in the area before and after the snakes and then proceeded to go outside with it but ONE WAS MOVING!!

Okay, I placed the mess outside and then went back inside the greenhouse and sat down for a bit. I need to get that live one out of there, I thought. So I took a few breaths, grabbed a pair of garden scissors, and went to work. Trouble is, I’d no sooner free the guy he’d try to crawl back through the netting, so…I had to hold his head to free him. I had to completely be in My Happy Place in my head to do this, too.

I felt a little better afterward. I felt even better after I took a hot shower.

18 responses to “On the law of unintended consequences: a story of hubris

  1. I must admit…I would have called 911 and never go back to the green house again : ) I am a big chicken when it comes to snake…..One of the reason I moved from FL to north. I am impressed by your dedication though. We have one black snake on the property….I pray everyday that I dont see him again….

    Like your post about whats welcome, versus tolerated on the grounds. Makes sense.

  2. Wow, Kudos to you, El, for freeing that snake. I don’t know if I could have done it, although I try hard to attract them as they are such maligned creatures and so useful in rodent control.

    I wonder if one of those vibrating mole deterrents would help with the vole problem?


  3. I love snakes, and used to have one as a pet… But even I think you were very brave! Wild snakes are a whole different ball game.. 🙂
    Is there something less dangerous to snakes that you can replace the netting with?

  4. jeez el, they say there ain’t much to country living (okay maybe it was only warren zevon who said that) but your days and nights are filled to the brim with action! indiana jones style! and let me tell you if i had found one of those guys in south haven, you would have heard my shrieking up by you. :O

    i am not sure how much more can be done in trying to deter those voles. i think you are doing the best you can and you did manage to save one snake! i also think it is great that your farmland is not so overworked that all the ecological systems contained in it are able to embrace all kinds of diverse critters.

    my mind fills with distinct imagery whenever i read your posts. thank you for keeping us all informed, aware and thoughtful of earth and nature.

  5. Does deer or bird netting ever work? The only thing I’ve managed to do with bird netting is kill unsuspecting lizards (I cried like a baby the one time it happened). So now the birds get a full buffet of all of my strawberries because I feel bad about the one lizard, and don’t want to happen again.

    Never seen a snake at our house, but I did see one while riding my bike yesterday at an intersection in the grass. It was cool. Thank goodness I didn’t have to touch it!

  6. You are a superhero.
    Years ago I saw an idiot go out of his way to run over a rat snake with his giant, noisy, add- more- chrome- so-everyone-knows-how-manly–I am truck. What a guy. I was glad I had already dropped my children at school, so they didn’t witness such cruel stupidity.
    I’m glad you could and did set the snake free.

  7. Ah, what a champion! We had a copperhead caught in netting. It was still alive. Not having much experience with snakes and since they are venomous (deadly, in local parlance) we called wildlife rescue which cut it free and released it down by the creek.

    My husband was also bitten by a different snake (sunny spring day in the garden) but it couldn’t get a good grip through his trouser leg (denim – you gotta love it!), so the snake was unable release any venom. Good fortune….. but after 10 hours in ER under observation, my husband was angrier than the snake!

    I do like that snakes keep the various rodents under control. However, whenever kookaburras, kingfishers and owls hang around too close to the house, I know that there are snakes nearby.

  8. hum. I AM glad you saved the snake. but thinking – don’t snakes also eat chicks and eggs? Especially one the size of a mature blue or black racer? Could that be why they are getting into the netting?

  9. Damn, girl! A FIVE foot long snake?? Zowie! OK, at that point I would have just lost it, no matter how cool I wanted to appear to be. I don’t know how you do it. You’ve got my respect.

  10. what Hayden said…yes.

    Was thrilled when we first moved to the country and the hens made a nest in an old dog house and set about laying eggs.

    Was horrified one day to discover a very large king snake half in and half out of the dog house with an egg shaped lump just about three inches down from the back of it’s head.

    There have been other close encounters and to this day, I will not reach into anywhere in the hen house that I can’t see.

    I’ve also used the netting, with the same awful, guilt inducing result and handled it like you did, El. Just couldn’t not try to rescue them. Don’t use the netting anymore because of the snake casualties but I always made sure, as we were holding their heads and cutting them free from the net, to tell them repeatedly to please, please remember what we had done.

  11. El,
    congratulations on overcoming your fears and letting the blue racer free. I don’t mind snakes too much butt, Blue racers kinda freak me out. They will chase you if you run. They don’t bite unless they really feal threatened (ie being handled). But Gee the whole chasing thing scares me whit less… LMAO. regardless they have a role on earth and are currently a rapidly declining species due to habitat loss.

    On my farm I I’ve had some scares from black rat snakes in the barn. I don’t mind them hunting around the farm but there self defense is to be very still and quiet. I almost picked one up. It was laying on top bale of hay.I used the barn broom to sweep him out of my barn that day.. I’ve seen him in there again and am very careful about where I put my hands now.

    again good job,

  12. Wow! Good for you for saving that snake! It gives me the shivers a little to think about, but it’s such a great thing to do.

    They are really beautiful snakes though! I’ve never seen one like that before!

  13. Thanks, all. I really am not that big of a hero, except maybe to that poor snake. I really am simply trying to live as honestly as I can without being too high minded about it. And with that honesty comes a heightened sense of responsibility for righting my screwups, especially where guiltless beneficial animals are concerned.

    WF: You and my husband. He said “Tell me about it when it’s over.”

    Ali: I am of a mind that where one vole vacates a space another fills the void. I just have to deal with them. I know what they like (pea shoots, sweet potatoes, new seedlings of lettuce) and I just need to be vigilant. They’re not overrunning the joint, they’re just…out there!

    Gigi: ONLY Warren Zevon? Do you know how I worship that guy? But don’t worry, I won’t be doing snake show-and-tell when you stop by!

    Katie: The cheap stuff I buy (with 3/4″ squares) does seem to be especially problematic, which is why I need to make sure it is taut and stapled to the ground with garden staples. The heavy expensive stuff I have around the big garden (1″ x 3/4″ holes, thicker wires) has given the local serpents no trouble. I need to pony up and buy more of the good stuff, I think.

    Pamela: I am sure if that guy had to pick one up he’d scream like a girl too. Can you say “overcompensation”?

    Nada, well, dang, this guy wasn’t poisonous! There’s only one poisonous snake in Michigan and that one comes with a warning (rattle on tail) so I’ve got it pretty easy. So, are those birds snake-eaters or something? What a dog eat dog world Oz is! (Oh and keep your eye on the mail!)

    Hayden, well, sure…but our chicks are pushing 4 pounds and the eggs I would gladly give to a snake, we’ve got so many of them! Really, though, no snake is going to mess with Bloody Beatrice and her sisters. Bea is quite fearless, and the rest would make such a racket that we’d come running.

    Artemesia: Let’s just say they’ve got my deep respect. These guys really don’t want anything to do with us, and they quite literally race away. Which spooks you more than seeing them, believe me!

    K: Very interesting, and I’m so glad you shared your story. I second your rule on where to stick your hand in the coop, but mine usually is because I have stuck said hand in poop (somewhat gross) and broken eggs (very gross) and soft-shelled jelly eggs (super freak out gross). Snakes never crossed my mind, so rare are they around here.

    Shelly, wow, the racers I have encountered–the live ones, anyway–want nothing to do with me but zip away, quickly. I would bet we have rat snakes around here too but I haven’t encountered them. It’s just as well as I would probably pick one up too.

    Allie, yep, they are quite pretty, especially their bellies and their little heads. They’re constrictors so their mouths aren’t too big; their jaws simply unhinge to swallow. Maybe TMI, sorry, you said it gave you the shivers…

  14. Can you really move the chicken tractor by yourself? Looks heavy. Do you have a sketch? My neigbor has couple and he uses an ATV (?) to move them around on the grass. Quick question – would a predator dig under and get to them. I am tempted to do this…but worried that I will have something dig under and get ’em. I just ordered 50 broilers…and now I am thinking…what did I do?? I can easily keep them in the barn – but also want some healthy, natural meat. If this project works…I can claim that we produce our own meat as well. Looking forward to your thoughts.

  15. Yes, they eat snakes and rodents although the owls are more partial to rodents. I remember washing up and looking out the kitchen window and seeing a kookaburra swoop down, pick up a small snake and beat it mercilessly against a rock. I was so shocked because it wasn’t warm and fuzzy nature – can you tell I was raised in the city? (Will keep an eye on the mail – thanks!)

  16. WF: Yep, I’d imagine something determined enough can dig under this. I am crossing my fingers frankly right now. I plan on ordering poultry netting (electric netting: the one everyone recommended to me here is called PoultryNet (see it here) when I get my next batch because I am also getting turkeys (they’ll get the netting). It’s just to keep the raccoons and dogs etc. out. Hawks are another problem, which is why they’re in the tractor. 50! Yay. You better build two of these things. I will take some better pictures and make another post about it, okay? But yeah, I can move it myself. I usually use my hubby’s help though too because someone has to watch to make sure the birds don’t get run over (they’re pretty dumb). Putting the PVC pipe should really help it slide along though.

    Oh gawd Nada I have a post in my head for tomorrow about being a silly city girl still. I think it’s okay to still hold on to some things! We see owls every once in a while; I think they’re so cool. I remember seeing the kookaburra on your site. So…foreign looking to this girl’s eyes!

  17. My first real encounter with a snake was when I went to turn my compost pile with a pitch fork and it came out with a writhing snake on the end.

  18. Betsy: Oh no! Eeks. Now we’re going to dissuade people from turning their compost piles. Luckily I guess compost happens even if you don’t turn it, right?

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