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.

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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.