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Beauty Beyond the Skin

Captivated, our eyes were fixed on the awesome feat happening before us. It seemed to be occurring in slow motion, or rather almost outside of real time. The movement so fluid, so graceful that it left us awestruck and speechless, not because we didn’t want to talk about it but because we couldn’t find the appropriate words to capture and truthfully describe the splendor of what we were seeing. We knew it had to happen somehow, however, until last week we had never seen it in progress. There aren’t strong or descriptive enough adjectives to describe what we were seeing and how we felt at that moment beholding it. Even words such as awesome, awestruck, splendor, incredible, amazing, don’t quite come close to describing the scene that was before us nor the emotions that filled us. To say that we were filled with excitement isn’t strong enough; we were thrilled, elated, exhilarated! We were lucky enough to behold one of nature’s wonders, to see a secret revealed, of course we aren’t the only ones in all of human history to see it but at the moment we felt as if we were allowed into a special circle to see what very few have seen. There was definitely a certain amount of beauty in it, though it takes more than an open eye to see that beauty, a receptive, humble eye is needed with a willingness to be awed. Soak this in, carry it with you as I begin to set the scene.

IMG_9964I have to step back a little to lay the foundation before I can proceed in describing what it was that we were observing. For a few years now, I have been volunteering at Whitewater Sate Park, taking care of their snakes. Through those years I have handled five snakes. Only one of those remains now, a beautiful and large adult fox snake. The ground color is light brown, almost a glowing yet dull yellow, numerous dark brown to black splotches line its back. Its side has a row of alternating small blotches. Each scale is visible, slightly keeled, giving texture to its skin. The head is narrow, with a rounded nose, and is a solid brownish color. The belly is pale, with rectangular splotches, looking almost checkered. Fox snakes are often confused with bull snakes, milk snakes and rattle snakes. It is for this reason that the naturalist program at the park keeps a fox snake (and a rattle snake) to educate people about snakes and how to identify them correctly. Snakes shouldn’t be kept as pets, and the one I take care of is for educational purposes only.

Before I feed the snake, I enjoy taking him out of his cage and handling him. Being born in captivity and raised for naturalist programs, he is very tame and likes to be held. (He may just like time out of the cage.) The smoothness of his skin, the strength of his muscle, the ease in which he glides across my skin is very intriguing, I marvel at these things every time I hold him. His movement is so fluid, it’s almost unreal. Often, he wraps himself around my arm, or twists into a pretzel. His tongue flickers, smelling the air, smelling me. I wonder if he recognizes my scent. Being touched by the forked tongue is almost electrical, like static but doesn’t hurt. Once again, it is that connection, a bound that is formed between fellow creation and me that holds me in place, momentarily stops time, allowing me to delight in that oneness, to be healed and renewed by it. Holding the snake is so relaxing and calming, it melts away stress, anxiety and pain. As always, I am reluctant to break that connection.

IMG_9963When I observe the fox snake in the cage, I often think about it free, in the wild. Pine barrens, upland hardwoods, prairies, near streams or rivers are where the snake should be, not in a cage. Roaming upon the ground looking for small mammals such as mice, chipmunks, and ground squirrels to eat. Fox snakes are constrictors; large prey is subbed by suffocation with their body coils before swallowing. They overwinter in rock crevices and mammal burrows, staying below the frost line. They emerge in late April, during which time the probably mate. Eggs are laid in a nest usually under logs, in damp soil, or woodlot sawdust piles.  Communal nesting has been observed. In midsummer, the eggs hatch. During the day, snakes can be found on rocks and roads sunning themselves when the weather is cool. On hot days they retreat into rocks crevices or slither underground to keep out of the heat.

My beloved fox snake gracefully winds across the woodchips in his cage. Ironically, one of the threats to fox snakes is people capturing them for the pet trade. Diminishing habitat, through the destruction wrought by humans also adds pressure to the small population here in Minnesota. One of the greatest losses in fox snake populations comes through automobiles, habitat destruction is the other. Of course there are predators to the fox snake but not enough to impact population size as humans have done. The Minnesota Department of Resources has listed fox snakes as a special concern species.

IMG_9862Last week, I took my mom and my niece, Mariya, with me to feed the snake. First, I pulled mice out of the freezer and put them in a pail of hot water to thaw. As we waited the necessary twenty minutes, I opened the cage and reached in to pull the snake out. He slithered up my arm, flicking his tongue in his usual greeting. Back down my arm, he wraps himself around my wrist. Mom and Mariya gently touch his back. He takes note of their scent with his tongue. We allow a couple of park visitors to pet him as well.  People are curious yet a little fearful; we assure them there is no need to be afraid. Before long, we had him back in the cage. I had noticed the skin on his head was looking a little flaky; he was probably going to shed soon. I had retrieved his mice from the pail in the basement. With a long, grabbing tool, I dangled mice in the cage, dancing them around to try arousing his interest. He was distracted. I advised we walk away and leave him alone for a few minutes.  The minutes passed, I urged Mariya to look at the snake again. Is he eating? She came back. One mouse was gone; he was just playing with the rest. Then he was rubbing his head and body all over the surfaces of the cage like he was trying to get an itch. Mariya watched as he began to shed his old skin.

IMG_9870Mariya’s report stirred us with curiosity, we to went to watch.  This is it, the indescribable feat taking place before us! We stood mesmerized; an amazing knowledge flowed into us as the snake flowed across the wood chips. We knew snakes shed their skins, but I suppose we really didn’t know or think about how it was done.  Using the water dish, rock, stick, and log in the cage, he seemed to be gliding gently out of his skin. The movement and process was done with such grace and fluidity it seemed unreal, mystical. Again, I can’t find the words to accurately describe the process. We observed in awed silence, until finally with the help of the branch, his tail slid out of the old skin. How shiny, fresh and new our fox snake looked! I reached in to carefully pull out the delicate skin; it was in one piece. Mom kept the snake from escaping on the other side; she noted that he seemed more sensitive to the slightest of touch.  The fresh felt different than the ones I collected as a child. It was so smooth it felt almost moist and warm. The papery texture wasn’t there quite yet. It was incredible. We placed the skin on the floor, laying it out flat to measure the length. Mariya laid next to it for scale. It was 63 inches, a very large individual for a fox snake. I gave him a few more moments to eat, but he wasn’t interested. Sometimes when I take the mice out he rapidly vibrates his tail sounding like a rattle snake; fox snakes use this as a defense against predators. With a loud clank, I pushed the padlocks closed. Until next week, my friend.

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