Category: I Grew Up on a Farm in Virginia
From as far back as I can remember, I have been fascinated with all creatures, but especially reptiles and amphibians. My parents encouraged my curiosity. Lois knew most of the reptiles on the farm, and always made a short science lesson out of any creature we discovered. Well before the age of 10 I was turning over old logs, rocks, boards, etc., looking for what hid beneath. There were two or three species of tiny snakes that I found regularly. I would generally watch them, poke them, and watch to see where they went. We did NOT kill snakes (except a poisonous one in the yard).
Mother was not afraid of snakes, quite the contrary, she would show off a black snake to her science classes at school. My grandmother—this is the one I got to call “Grandma,” was “deathly afraid” of snakes—any snakes. I recall, again at an age on the very edge of my earliest memories, going to the Washington National Zoo with family. I wanted to go to the reptile house and suggested Grandma come along. After all, the snakes were in cages and behind glass. She absolutely refused; she did not want to see a live snake under any conditions.
My interest was further encouraged by my Uncle Neil (father’s brother). He was a herpetologist at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa (herpetology is the science of reptiles and amphibians). Two or three times a year he would come to the farm, and we would spend time walking and looking for all types of critters.
There were than a dozen species of snakes on the farm, all but one of them totally harmless. We did encounter copperheads from time to time, but even these were not terribly dangerous. If we found a snake in the house—rat snakes liked to hang out in the basement—one of us would catch it and take it to some appropriate—far from the house—place and turn it loose. There were barns where we kept corn, that attracted mice, and we encouraged the snakes to stand guard. We had some fat snakes!
One of my favorite activities was to follow along behind the tractor when my father was plowing a field. There were several species of burrowing snakes on the farm, and others that laid their eggs underground. On any spring or summer day, it was likely that the plow would turn up snake or turtle eggs or one of the burrowing snakes.
One of the prettiest snakes was the rainbow snake. An adult was smooth, with pink, purplish, and bluish-black with red stripes on its back, yellow stripes on the sides. Their bodies were a little heavier than other snakes. Rainbow snakes are very docile and rarely ever bite, even when captured, and they are not venomous. We would find them in the moist soil of fields not far from the river. The adult snakes eat primarily eels, so they are also at home in marshes and in the river.
On another day in the spring, the plow turned out a clutch of about two dozen white cherry-tomato-sized eggs. Not sure whether they were snake or turtle eggs, my father let me take six or eight eggs back to the house. Mother provided a deep tub and I buried the eggs in about six inches of soil in the tub, and set the tub in the corner of my room. The tub was deep enough that small snakes or turtles would not be able to crawl out.
About two days later, members of my mother’s family arrived from West Virginia. I forget exactly which aunt and uncle, but they also had grandma with them, along one or two of my cousins. I had promised not to tell grandma about the eggs in the tub. About two days into their visit, however, the eggs hatched, and I had half a dozen tiny blacksnakes wriggling around in the bottom of the tub.
My aunt and uncle and the cousins were fascinated (or at least curious), but my grandmother was not impressed—“snakes in the house! He hatched snake eggs in the house!” I took the tub out of the house and turned the baby snakes loose in a field far away from the house, otherwise, Grandma would not have been able to sleep that night.
I still hear about that when I get a chance to chat with my cousins. Fifty years later, swapping emails with one of my cousins, she said, “I know we visited you in Virginia, though I can’t remember much about it, but I believe I remember you having reptiles, perhaps snakes (?).” So I guess that in my legacy in my mother’s family.