Dispatch #16: Dancing with the Snakes
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       Dan took us to three other sinkholes that were in the Narcisse community pasture. One had maidenhair ferns sprouting from its walls, and several very large, old females. Garter snakes can live for eight to ten years. In another, a group of six young males were poking their head up of the sinkhole floor, like  human teenagers scanning the scene for female action, although their flicking tongues were more important for sensing it than their eyes. 

      We spent the night in Inwood, twenty minutes south. Each town in rural Manitoba has a statue of its “mascot,” some animal-- a beaver, a stag, a turtle, a catfish, a giant mosquito—that is like its  totem, asserting itself against the endless flatness. Inwood has a statue of two huge entwined garter snakes. There was a lunar eclipse that night that turned the moon blood-red for an hour. The province was parched from several years of drought, and the next day the temperature went up into the eighties, bringing up the snakes in force, but also creating the most dangerous forest-fire conditions in Manitoba’s history. We returned to the Narcisse dens, but had to share the experience with twelve busloads of schoolchildren. Dan had said that landscape architecture students at the University of Manitoba were working up an ecotourism master plan for the park, which would determine its human carrying capacity. A stewardship program for the dens on private land was also being developed. 

     Zach and I decided to find our own den, where we could commune with the snakes in peace. The interlake region is absolutely saturated with garter snakes, so we had no trouble finding one,  in an abandoned quarry, whose limestone had been crushed to make air strips during the Second World War.  The snakes were oozing out of the fissures and crevices in one of its khaki walls. Many had already made their way up into the aspen parkland, so many that we had to watch where we were stepping. “You went right under my sneaker. I could of squished you,” Zach admonished one.  The  crackling and rattling grass that they were slithering through was so loud that it sounded like a cornfield being skeletonized by grasshoppers. The woods were alive with all kinds of creatures : mourning cloak, Melbert’s tortoise-shell, and polygonia anglewing butterflies had also emerged from their hibernacula; fritillaries and blues were skipping about. A few hundred yards behind the trees we could hear the clucking and chirruping of some northbound sandhill cranes. I followed four snakes, flowing together as if they were a single serpent, in a concert of contact, the female a head ahead of the three males, who were flanking her, riding shotgun. It was a sight that dispelled any doubts one might have about the beauty of snakes. I remembered a passionate apologia for them that a half-crazed American herpetologist who had been wandering in the Congo basin for twelve years and was probably never going to go home and write up his disseration, gave me twenty years ago : “Snakes are so clean. They have no arms or legs, they can’t talk, they can’t hear, they can barely see, they can never close their eyes (which is how the superstitition about their hypnotic powers got going). They don’t have bladders, they don’t get parental care—and with all these handicaps, how is it that every snake from the day he is born knows how to swim, to climb, to crawl on the earth, to catch food, to run from people who want to kill it ? How is it that they have successfully invaded every habitat ? I think snakes are just the most beautiful creatures God created. Even more beautiful than women. They’re ballet in motion.”

       In another den, where thousands of snakes had surfaced, we found Dr. Rick Shine, a behavioral ecologist from the University of Sydney, who has been coming here for five years, picking ones he wanted to study more closely and putting them in a cotton bag. Dr. Shine was very busy—the morning hours were precious—and he had no time to answer my beginners’ questions. But he said we could meet that afternoon for a chat at the research station in Chatfield. Why have you been coming here all the way from Australia, which (as anyone who watches Steve the Crocodile Hunter knows) has one of the world’s most spectacular herpetofaunas ? I asked.

       “I study snakes all over the world,” Dr. Shine replied, “but there are more snakes per square meter here than anywhere on the face of the earth, and they are very docile and unafraid of humans, so this system provides a unique opportunity to conduct all sorts of behavioral experiments that aren’t possible anywhere else. Many involve their extraordinarily sophisticated chemical and hormonal communications systems, which human don’t have. With a single flick of their tongue, they can tell the sex and the body length of  another snake, and whether it belongs to the same den. We’ve discovered that some males mimic the females, producing the same sexually attractive pheromones when they first emerge from hibernation. We call them she-males. They only do this for a day or two, then switch back to being hot-blooded males. What the benefit of this  could be is very puzzling. Perhaps it is that  during this short period they are vulnerable to attack by crows, so being covered by lots of other snakes protects them.”

        What degree of choice does the female in a mating ball have over which male she will be inseminated by ? Does she gape her cloacal aperture for the one who pushes her buttons ?   Dr. Shine doubted that the female could be very selective in such a chaotic situation. “There is a strong element of sexual coercion at the den,” he said. “The males are stressing the females, and form mating balls even with juveniles. But once a female reaches the summer range, she is probably able to exert more choice.

        “My colleague Dr. Bob Mason of  Oregon State University at Corvalis, who has been coming here for twenty years,” he went on, “has marked some of the snakes, and has discovered that they disperse up to twenty kilometers from their den, and that almost every snake comes back to the same den, and that each den is genetically unique. Whether they follow pheromone trails when they disperse and return, we don’t know. They probably use a whole range of navigational techniques—compass, sun orbit.”

       I asked Dr. Shine, who was impatient to get back to his work—he and several of Dr. Mason’s graduate students had been poring over notebooks of data—what he found so interesting about snakes, and there was a pause as he decided whether he was going to dignify the ignorance of this query with an answer. “I think snakes are very beautiful, mysterious, elegant, and glorious,” he said at last.

       The sex ratio of each den, by the way, is about equal, even though the ones you see are overwhelmingly males.  

       The garter snakes around here den not only in sinkholes and quarries, but in old foundations and wells. They have colonized the Inwood creamery, and even the crawlspace of Inwood Manor, the local old folks’ home, and crawling up its vents have appeared in its hallways and rooms, scaring the daylights out of the residents. “They seem to like the manor and just in the last few years they’ve gotten bad,” the manor’s cook told me when we dropped in that afternoon. “We saw probably a dozen over the winter, but now they have probably left to wherever they go. They do their snake business in the summer months. This summer we’ll be doing major excavation around the whole building so they won’t be able to get in anywhere, so that should take care of it.”

     We spoke with a white-haired woman named Ethel Dadswell, who was knitting in the television room. Ethel was the resident snake-catcher. “I hate them-- enough to pick them up and throw them out the door,” she told us.

     Why are people so afraid of snakes ? I asked. 

      “You’ve got to admit they’re a nasty-looking thing,” Ethel said. “Okay, you can see them outside, and that’s fine. But when you’re sitting here reading, completely relaxed, and there’s one in the corner, with its head reared up and looking around—that’s not a pleasant thing. I’m one of the people that nothing much bothers. If something needs to be done, I’ll do it. But others have a very real fear. They scream and scream and get frantic and can hardly breathe. That’s not a nice thing, when it can be controlled. I’d like someone to tell me why they’re so precious. What good do snakes do ?”

      “They eat bugs and help keep things in balance,” Zach said. 
       “They  keep down the frog population,” I suggested. 

       “They torture the frogs,” Ethel countered. “A frog is a nice thing. Frogs don’t do us any harm. Where I grew up, in Norris Lake, eleven miles south of here, when spring came, the frogs used to sing me to sleep, but here you don’t hear anything because there are so many snakes. If all they do is kill the frogs, then I’d rather not have them. This thing that they’re absolutely harmless—that doesn’t apply to anything. Not even people.” 

          “I don’t see how anyone can not like snakes,” Zach got up the gumption to say. 

          While we were talking, a big forest fire, one of dozens that had broken out in the province that day, was raging to the east. The entire town of Fraserton (pop. tk) had to be evacuated. But in the middle of the night there was a thunderous downpour, saving Manitoba from disaster. In the morning Zach and I went to pay a last visit to our secret den, to say goodbye to the snakes and see what they do on a rainy day, whether the wetness had slowed their emergence and dampened their ardor. Some were out and about, but not as many as the day before. Zach picked one up from a large, writhing pile. He turned over a rusty metal plate, exposing hundreds more. “Come on, Zach, we have to go,” I said. 

       “Just one more snake,” Zach pleaded, and he picked up another one,  and laying it back down softly on the scree said, “Bye snakey. I love you.”


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