Some folks find snakes fascinating and beautiful. In others, snakes inspire an especially large measure of fear and loathing. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson addresses this response in his essay, “The Serpent,” from Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984):
“What is there in snakes anyway that makes them so repellent and fascinating? The answer in retrospect is deceptively simple: their ability to remain hidden, the power in their sinuous limbless bodies, and the threat from venom injected hypodermically through sharp hollow teeth. It pays in elementary survival to be interested in snakes and to respond emotionally to their generalized image, to go beyond ordinary caution and fear. The rule built into the brain in the form of a learning bias is: become alert quickly to any object with the serpentine gestalt. Overlearn this particular response in order to keep safe.”
I have no intent to press those with established opinions about snakes. As Wilson points out, humans have “an innate propensity to learn such fear quickly and easily past the age of five.” But admittedly, it’s pleasing when kids respond with open interest to animals—especially maligned species that are actually beneficial. Last year my son and I were walking in the meadow and came upon this same den of emerging garter snakes. He’d never seen anything like it. Rather than recoiling, he stopped to watch for a long time, plying me with questions. I explained that it’s always wise to give wild animals space, but that these small snakes are generally harmless and helpful to humans—among other things, they eat worms, leeches, slugs, and a variety of insects. They congregate together underground during the winter, hibernating in groups for warmth. To the unfamiliar observer, the snakes may look like a living ball of twine, rolling and swirling as they emerge from the entrance of a hibernation den. This behavior, delightfully creepy to watch, is evidence of the other practical purpose behind garter snakes' communal hibernation: males and females have immediate access to each other in spring. After mating, each snake retreats to a separate domain around the area. Summer is not a time for sociability. This is not the last we see of them, however. Later in the season we will inevitably encounter slender hatchlings, which appear suddenly underfoot in the yard like animated blades of grass or take their turn to sun on the deck. Watch out garden pests—here they come!