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June 4, 2019

Last Monday afternoon our daughter walked into her laundry room. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something move on the shelf above her washing machine. It was a rather large black snake. She closed the laundry room door and left the house with her two young daughters. She called her husband. The serpent was safely returned to the wilds of Duncan Park.

Four years ago, I was rummaging in the part of our basement we call Outer Darkness, a Biblical term used to describe the final destination of lost souls. Back in 1937 when my grandfather built the house, it was heated with a coal-burning furnace.  The coal was dumped through a chute into a coal cellar. That old coal cellar is what Clare and I named Outer Darkness. It is the final destination for forgotten items. Anything that probably should have been discarded long ago spends some time in outer darkness before it is finally cast into the trash.

I honestly don’t remember why I was fumbling around in Outer Darkness, but I distinctly remember seeing the four-foot black snake coiled among the boxes and shopping bags. The sleek reptile was just as surprised and just as eager to get away as I was. The one thing I knew for sure was that he was in the wrong place and had to go. Employing the handle of an old straw broom, I managed to carry the intruder outside.

My dad often told me that every time Mama saw a snake it was a sign that she was pregnant. Fortunately, Clare did not see the slinky fellow lounging in our basement four years ago.

For the first six years of my life, our family lived in a four-room house on Kentucky Avenue in Spartanburg. In the kitchen, a two-eyed laundry heater stoked with firewood supplied the source of hot water, provided warmth for our home, and served as a cooking surface. Smoke was vented through a stovepipe.

Early one morning when I was five years old, I heard my mother calling my name with distress in her voice. She was cooking breakfast when she discovered a large black snake coiled behind the heater. The slinky critter had found a warm place to spend the night.

My mother gave me the instructions, “Go out the front door. Come around to the back and hold the door open for me!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

My mother, pregnant with her fourth child, herded the snake out of her kitchen with a straw broom. The shiny black serpent, his presence in the house most unwelcome, wiggled past me. My admiration for my mother’s courage and my respect for the black snake’s ingenuity increased.

The southeastern United States is home to at least forty-five species of snakes. Only six of those are poisonous. Among the several species of black snakes the ring-necked snake, the pine snake, the eastern indigo snake, and the southern black racer are included. The eastern hog-nosed snake is sometimes black. The venomous cottonmouth moccasin is usually black but lives only below the fall line in South Carolina. Humans often kill snakes as a result of misinformation or misidentification.  I have heard the comment “The only good snake is a dead snake!” numerous times.  In our area, many people think that every snake they see is a copperhead.

The black rat snake, also called pilot snake, is the most common snake in the Southeast. It is also the largest snake in our area, sometimes reaching eight feet in length. Found in forests, fields, marshes, and farmland, these skillful climbers can ascend the trunks of large trees and climb into the rafters of barns. They can also swim quite well.

Years ago I was fishing with a group of Cub Scouts near Burrell’s Ford on the Chattooga River. I noticed a humongous granddaddy black snake slithering down the opposite bank of the river, the Georgia side. He proceeded to swim through the swift current, straight toward the covey of young boys.

In an attempt to prevent widespread panic, I met the long snake on the South Carolina side, quickly grabbing him behind the head. The large constrictor threw three coils around my arm. His strength was impressive.

The Cubs shouted, “Dr. Kirk, what are going to do with him?”

“Can I hold him?”

“Can I take him home with me?”

I retreated to a pine tree to release the powerful snake. Just as I let him go, he whipped his head around, biting me hard on my right thumb. Having expressed his displeasure with me, he scaled the tree in no time flat. I washed my bleeding thumb in alcohol from a first aid kit, explaining to the boys that we had invaded the snake’s territory.

In the spring and fall, black rat snakes are active during the day; in the summer they move around at night. When startled, they often wrinkle themselves into a series of kinks. If they feel further threatened, they may flee quickly or coil and vibrate their tails in dead leaves as a form of mimicry, making a sound like a rattlesnake. They produce a foul-smelling musk odor which they release onto a predator.

This species is a constrictor, coiling around its prey and tightening its grip until the victim suffocates. Then the predator swallows its meal whole. True to its name, black rat snakes consume mice and rats. They will also hunt other snakes, as well as chipmunks, squirrels, bats, birds, and bird eggs.

My mother apparently had radar for black snakes. One Sunday after church the ten people in our family were enjoying a fine dinner together when Mama saw something amiss through the screen door. “I think a snake is crawling up the wall in the garage,” she said.

Sure enough, a hungry black snake was making its way to a wren’s nest in the rafters. My dad quickly dispatched the intruder to the field beyond the fence.

Though they have few natural foes, I have witnessed a full-grown black snake dangling helplessly from the clenched talons of a red-tailed hawk. Humans are their most common enemies. They are in danger of being slain by frightened people.  Black snakes are also frequent roadkill victims.

Black snakes are beneficial to humans because they prey on rodents. Several years ago, I released a black snake into my barn for that very reason. I haven’t seen him since.

Even those who understand the value of these beneficial reptiles don’t always respect them.

Once a man offered to build a tool shed for his brother-in-law. The property owner had seen a large black snake on his land. He cautioned, “If you see a black snake, leave him alone. Black snakes are our friends.”

Later that day the owner returned to see how the project was progressing. Aghast at seeing a large dead black snake draped over a fence, he chided his brother-in-law, “I told you not to kill a black snake. They are our friends.”

“When I sit down to eat my lunch, I don’t appreciate being surprised by your friend.”

My sentiments exactly when I found one in our basement!

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