"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Snakes on a Blog!

When I was a youngling, I kept snakes. Not exotic snakes like boas or pythons that might be fashionably impressive today, but the sleek black, brown, and yellow-or-green-striped garter snakes that are common to many parts of the world. They’re sometimes incorrectly identified as “garden snakes” and often referred to as “common garter snakes” … but I don’t call them that because that’s just rude.

Catching and keeping snakes was my early foray into dabbling with nature: there was a swamp about a mile from where I lived, complete with a freshwater pond and an old wooden bridge spanning the narrowest part that provided great access for small hands and feet to the clear pond waters. The area has since been drained, filled, and leveled, but I still recognize the faint outlines of the swamp and the pond because I spent so much time there amid the hawks, dragonflies, cattails, minnows, frogs, pollywogs, and snakes. I suppose there were mosquitoes, too, but nobody remembers mosquitoes.

Each May or June, as the pond crackled to life after another long northern winter, this misplaced oasis would burst out wide with color, movement, and sound. I’d lift up rocks scattered around the pond or crawl through the surrounding grass until I found two or three snakes to relocate to an aquarium remodeled as a terrarium, stationed outside our house for, uh, family reasons. I’d keep the snakes through the summer before returning them to the swamp in the early fall; and I’d keep them as satisfied as possible by heading back to the pond a few times a week to catch them some tiny frogs. Because snakes need friends – and snacks – too.

I handled them often and they always seemed to get used to being held. After initially jabbing my thumb with their teeth a few times, they’d settle down and wrap around my wrist and arm. They’d then often react to my presence or that of someone else outside the terrarium by looking through the glass right at the human. And given how most people respond to snakes, being a slightly devious snake-keeper and being able to demo a garter snake twirling around my arm was great fun. Me and the snakes kept this up for several summers, until one summer three of the largest garter snakes I’d ever had – they were all over two feet long – sneaked out of the terrarium, slithered into the house as a gang, and scarfed down three newborn tabby kittens sleeping under the kitchen table in a box.

Heh-heh-heh … everything in that last sentence didn’t happen. But just for a moment … did you believe me?

There is a theory about the evolution of dogs – and the evolution of domesticated animals generally – that those individuals whose appearance and behaviors were favored by human beings gained a genetic distinction over other members of their species, resulting in a kind of human-influenced natural selection occurring over thousands of years as the relationships between animals and humans developed. The theory tries to explain our fascination with animals – especially those we take into our homes as companions – as based, at least partly, in our reaction to the appealing looks they have and the looks they give us as we interact with them. Facial features, eyes, a certain way of gazing that humans find pleasant and captivating all combine to create a form of human-to-animal empathy that may or may not also be on the animals’ minds, depending on what research you read. This theory, if true, also means that even in our short lives – in evolutionary terms – we influence the development of future generations of animals by the choices we make and the relationships we have with those whose physical worlds cross into ours.

“Domesticated animals” is, of course, a very broad term, and would cover all kinds of non-human creatures and an enormous number of ways animal culture and human culture intersect. And our favoring of animals by certain elements of appearance (and behavior) is as highly subjective as it is culturally influenced: large numbers of human beings would, and do, regard similar animal appearances as “cute” and certain others as “ugly” without really questioning those preferences any more than they question their preference for their favorite colors or foods. I don’t mean this to sound critical; rather, I’m just emphasizing that these preferences and reactions are subjective, often reflecting early life experiences – and with the added glue of cultural norms that come into play, they seldom change once formed.

All this to say: snakes are quite beautiful in their own way. If you don’t think so, try forgetting they’re snakes for a moment and just look at the variety of facial features, eyes, colors, color patterns, and the way they own their space. And consider this: if humans over many generations who keep snakes — even in zoos — select and breed those that have certain more-appealing physical appearances, it’s just a matter of time before we have pythons with puppy faces and baby king snakes that look like kittens. It’s bound to happen. Some of the snakes in my pictures might just be their future ancestors….

The slideshow below is organized by snakeskin color (because that’s what they wanted). Enjoy the snakes!

Fancy Beasts

Below is a selection of superfine reptiles from the amphibian and reptile exhibit at Zoo Atlanta. They’re surprisingly photogenic creatures; as you can see from the pictures, they all turned toward the camera to let me capture their delightful smiles and that intense reptile-brain look in their eyes. And be sure to take a close look at the most-excellent talon manicure in the last two images.

In the fifth century B.C.E., the Greek philosopher Protagoras pronounced, “Man is the measure of all things.” Such an assumption makes us overlook a lot. Abilities said to “make us human” — empathy, communication, grief, toolmaking, and so on — all exist to varying degrees among other minds sharing the world with us. Animals with backbones (fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) all share the same basic skeleton, organs, nervous systems, hormones, and behaviors. Just as different models of automobiles each have an engine, drive train, four wheels, doors, and seats, we differ mainly in terms of our outside contours and a few internal tweaks. But like naïve car buyers, most people see only animals’ varied exteriors. — from Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina

Thanks for stopping by; stay tuned for a coming attraction: Snakes on a Blog!

Calm Waters

The Saranac River, in northern New York, runs about 80 miles from its source in the Adirondack Mountains to its termination at Lake Champlain near the city of Plattsburgh. On its route, it passes through the centers of many rural small towns established along the river as nineteenth century industries — lumber mills, blacksmiths, iron works, farming, and apple orchards among them — sprung up in the heavily wooded, rich soils of the entire region. The remnants of early plank roads built along the river to service these communities can still be found in the woodlands near the water, and the river later became a source for electricity generation along much of its length. Several of the original, now abandoned electrical substations are just a short walk from where I grew up, along with modernized substations that still contribute electric power to the area. The river features prominently in the region’s military history, and the Lake Champlain monster — Champy — is believed to occasionally winter in the river.  : )

The river and the villages it flows through are frequent subjects in the landscape images I’m working on for my Flickr Reboot project. I took the photos below near the high school I graduated from, where the river has carved an inlet around a small island a few steps from the road. You can see a wider view of the location in a Google Maps street view here.

Despite its proximity to the highway, this spot is a tiny oasis at the bottom of a hill. Select the first image to begin a slideshow, and if I’ve done my job well, you might just feel a calm summer breeze drifting over you.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!