snakes on the warm rock

There’s a small stone wall by the deck where our hot-tub is and in summer there are lizards and snakes taking advantage of the warm rock. I suspect they overwinter in the little caves under the rocks. For a few days now, two snakes have been nosing around each other whenever I pass the area. And just now I interrupted them mating. How often do you see snakes mating? This was not like those photographs or videos of hibernaculum where hundreds or thousands of snakes all entwine together for warmth in winter and then mate like crazy once spring comes. This was just two. And once I’d backed away, they coupled again, their faces alert and beautiful.


I don’t know if they’re Thamnophis sirtalis, the common garter snake, or the northwestern garter snake (Thamnophis ordinoides). To tell, you have to examine the scutes or scaly plates in the epidermis and I’m not about to try. But they’re pretty harmless, at least to humans. I often see them ingesting slugs and for this they use their upper and lower jaws independently. It’s strange to watch, as though the jaw dislocates while the prey is eaten. And then you can see it move down the snake’s throat and along its digestive system.

The female of this pair will give birth to live young later this summer. It’s a privilege to see these moments, like the appearance of small gods or emissaries. I’ve watched them sun themselves and eat and even drink from a saucer of water left on the grass. I’ve found their shed skins under the rhododendrons, transparent empty vessels, some with the eye-sockets still visible. I thought of D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Snake”:

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

“…the long dark nights of the evening star…”

A few mild days, when it seems that spring is almost in the air (we heard a bee yesterday on our walk at Francis Point, and the common mergansers were in their courting clothes, the females swimming in a line with an equal number of males following…). In the garden, I saw a few crocuses in bloom and a broad bean, fallen from its pod and forgotten on the surface of the soil, has sprouted, which makes me think I should plant the broad bean seeds I have in the porch. Tree frogs are loud in sunlight. The planets are busy in the night sky and the other night we saw Orion stretched over our house when we came home late from a poetry reading down the Coast.

But I’m thinking of almond blossom, the abundance of it last February in Portugal. I thought I’d never seen anything as beautiful — that is, until we passed grove after grove of lemon trees, the small suns brilliant on their branches. But almond blossom, as airy and lovely as spring dresses. I think almonds arrived in Portugal with the Moors, around the 8th century, but they are perfectly suited to the landscape of the Algarve, which is where we first saw them.

almond blossom in Farro


And the almond-tree, in exile, in the iron age!


This is the ancient southern earth whence the vases were baked, amphoras, craters, cantharus, oenochoe, and open-hearted cylix,
Bristling now with the iron of almond-trees


Iron, but unforgotten,
Iron, dawn-hearted,
Ever-beating dawn-heart, enveloped in iron against the exile, against the ages.


See it come forth in blossom
From the snow-remembering heart
In long-nighted January,
In the long dark nights of the evening star, and Sirius, and the Etna snow-wind through the long night.
                                 (from “Almond Blossom”, by D.H. Lawrence)
When we first moved here in 1982, I asked a local nursery owner if she’d order me some olive trees. I wanted to try them on the dry slope below the house. But she refused and said they wouldn’t survive north of San Francisco. Now people are growing them here on the Sunshine Coast, as well as the Gulf Islands, and they’re getting good crops. It might be worth trying a almond tree or two. In the meantime, we have orchids. Years ago someone gave me a cymbidium orchid and eventually that plant became six, though at present I just have two. (They make good gifts!) I don’t love house-plants, or at least I’m not willing to fuss with them. But these seem to thrive on neglect. I do divide and repot them every few years, making a potting mix with fir bark scrounged from the woodshed, and they go outside all summer. When I remember, I water them with orchid food. Right now there are five flowering stems on this plant and the flowers are opening one by one. They last a long time. So no almonds here to transport us to summery climates but there’s always orchids!
orchid in February