in the woods
like a whip
like a piece of circle
like black water
flowing down a hill.
it whispered —
like black water
through the field —
then hurried down,
like black water,
into a mouse’s hole.
— From Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Leaf and the Cloud”
We first found Lucy, the garden garter snake, sleeping in tight loops atop a pile of wood chips. She was not disturbed when we pulled back her blanket, a tarp to keep the wood chips dry, and we watched her closely for several minutes before resuming the morning’s work. When we returned several hours later to recover the pile, she was gone.
Late in the afternoon we found her sunning atop one of the firewood logs used to hold the tarp down.
At dusk I went out to the garden with the camera, looking for Lucy. She was still coiled on the log, but as I crept closer she slowly unwound and slithered across the ground until the distance between us seemed safe. She stretched out in front of me, 3 feet long with a dark gray back, red-brown stripes along her sides, and a light gray belly. Her eyes were cloudy blue.
Lucy let me take her picture, several frames with long exposures, then several more with flash, before she slid away. “Watch me,” she whispered, and I did, until she was out of sight.
Two days later, when the sun came out, we slowly pulled back the tarp, hoping to find Lucy sleeping among the wood chips. Instead we found her just-shed skin stuck to the bottom of the tarp. I now know that cloudy blue eyes mean a garter snake is about to shed.
In my mind I carry a picture of the garden food web, always pleased to make room for another creature like Lucy, Eastern garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis. To fit her into the picture, I had to do some research. I learned that she eats insects, primarily grasshoppers, as well as earthworms, small rodents, salamanders, frogs, tadpoles and slugs.
Finally, something that eats slugs! I wish there were a hundred of her.
She doesn’t dig holes. Do you hear me, Reilly the Brittany? She doesn’t chew or damage any plants in the garden. She avoids the gardeners at all costs.
And what eats the garter snake? Birds of prey, such as the sharp-shinned hawks and kestrels that lord over the garden from the top of an old spruce snag, are probably the major predators.
Perhaps the skunks or raccoons that meander around the garden at night would make a meal of her. Lucy is probably safe, sleeping under her tarp blanket.
For many years, I have measured success as a gardener by the diversity of life in the garden, by the number of interconnecting lines in the garden food web. I believe that our gardens can offset the current crisis in loss of biodiversity caused by habitat destruction and invasive species.
It all came into focus recently as Marjorie and I walked around the garden. Looking through the foliage of a young red oak to view new seed cones on a distant balsam fir, we noticed that the upper leaves of the oak were ragged and torn from a summer of constant insect chewing. And then we spotted a black-and-white warbler in the oak, feeding on whatever was feeding on the leaves. And so it goes, or should.
No sign of Lucy lately, but somehow I know she is around, watching me, seeing me far more often than I see her.