Vera, our little black cat, was acting strangely. She seemed to be trying to get at something very far above her, outside the screen door to the porch. I looked up and saw nothing. "What's the matter with you?" I asked. She meowed. I decided to go around to the kitchen window and see if I could catch a glimpse of whatever she was after. Hanging down from the upper door jam was the tail of a snake. I screamed for Charles, my partner. Unlike me, he is not phobic about snakes. We went outside to the porch door and saw this. Charles tried to reach for it with a thing we bought to pick up stray trash on our morning walks, but finally tried the fruit picker. That darn snake slithered into a hole above the door and now, despite taking off the door jam, we can't find it. There is nothing to do at this point. It was a milk snake so it's not poisonous, but still... it gives me nightmares. It's my second milk snake here in the Catskills. Digging the Learning Curve: A Great Year for Garter Snakes, by Deirdre Sinnott There's a small garter snake sharing the backyard with me. I see it when I walk toward the raspberry bushes. It usually moves from its sunning area to hide between the rocks that ring the "refrigerator" garden. (It's called the refrigerator garden because when I bought the house there was a half-buried refrigerator hull that the previous owner used for burning garbage.) I completed the stone wall in there, simply continuing the path that enclosed the back of the area. Whenever I move rocks around my garden, particularly the flat ones, I wonder when I'm going to disturb a snake. Snakes and I have a very uneasy relationship. Prompted by animal care specialists, I've touched them and even watched them eat; but they still terrify me. When I was in high school my mother chased me around the garden with a snake that was so dead its body didn't straighten out when she picked it up and waggled it at me. Even thought I could see that its body still held an "S" curve I ran, fueled by fear and the flight response. To this day I still occasionally wake with a certainty that snakes are coming out of my pillow. Only bolting from bed and snapping on the light will relieve the feeling that, lurking just under the blanket, is one of my serpentine "friends." Paging Dr. Freud. My first full summer in Roscoe, watching as frequent rain created a jungle out of the untended garden, I found myself alone for a few days. Normally this is no problem. I've been alone for great stretches of my life and found the time to be quite satisfying. However, this was alone alone. Charles flew to Seattle for a conference and being a singular entity in the country felt scarier than being the same thing in New York City. To stave off low-grade anxiety I invited a friend to visit me for part of his absence. Teresa and I spent two fun days walking and talking, generally enjoying the outdoors and each others friendship. On the morning that she left I watched her back her pickup truck out of the driveway. For some reason she cut a sharp angle and ended up rolling over a drainage grate cover and dislodge a blue reflective marker at the end of the driveway. I waved as her truck moved out and walked over to recover the reflector. As I got to the spot I saw a long snake squirming to get back under the drainage cover. Adrenaline coursed through my body. I could barely focus and my hands begin to shake. Was it red against black or red against yellow and what was that damn rhyme? When I finally calmed down enough to get a look at it there was no red or yellow, only a thin snake, brown and tan with diamonds down its back. Just the week before a friend and I discussed the rattlesnake question. As a life-long New York State resident I would have told you that the wasn't-no-sucha-thing as rattlesnakes in this state, but I would have been wrong. Rattlesnakes live in these parts. "And," my friend informed me, "They always travel the same paths to get to water. They follow these paths for generations. If your house is in one of the paths look out... because they'll be in your back yard." I stared at the wriggling body of the struggling snake and the diamonds on its back seem to be pulsing, announcing: "I'm a rattler and your house is in my path." Its head was under the cover so I couldn't see if it was the traditional triangular shape, but I believed I saw something on its tail, possibly a rattle. I looked around seeking some kind of help. With no snake identification books in the house I needed a local person. A truck pulled up to a neighbor's house and stopped. I'd never seen the guy before in my life, but he began to drive toward me, looking at each house, clearly searching for an address. I moved out of the road and looked to him hopefully. Please ask me what I'm staring at, I thought. He drove on by. Next my neighbor, Ray Bull, pulled into his driveway. Ray, a tall fellow with an open, friendly face, had always been very nice, doing little and big things. I've often felt bad about asking him questions because he always goes beyond the call of duty, but this was a snake emergency. I walked toward him. Without my distance glasses I couldn't see the expression on his face and for some reason I figured he might be angry. Maybe thinking, "What now?" "Hi Ray," I say, trying to sound casual. "You got a minute? I've got a snake and I don't know what kind it is and it's hurt, I think. And..." His face lit up. This apparently is one of the tasks that didn't turn his blood cold as it does mine. "It's a great year for garter snakes, lot of them around," he said happily. Now I'd been bracing myself for uncovering a garter snake in the garden, so far I not feared any I've seen. But the idea that there are lots that year didn't bring a smile to my face--more like a shiver. "Well, I'd be happy to discover that this is a garter snake, but I don't think so," I said as I led us to the spot. Ray's yellow Labrador went right in, nose first, to grab the snake and we warned him away. Ray got up real close too and said, "Nope, that's not a garter snake, is it alive?" "Yes, I saw it moving. I think it got run over when my friend left, but it did move." "I think it's a milk snake." Dying to ask if it's poisonous, I just held my breath. I didn't want to appear too wimpy. "It's harmless," he says. "I'll get a stick." He dove into what I now believed to be snake-infested bushes and plucked a stick. Ray poked the snake a little it moved very sluggishly. He maneuvered it onto the fork of the stick and held it up for inspection. "I don't think he's gonna make it." He started to cross the street to deposit the snake on the other side, in the wild area across from my house. He looked back at me, stopped and headed a bit further down the road. "I'll put it over here, but I don't think he's too good. May not last long." I sadly agreed. I didn't want the snake to die; I just didn't want it to be anywhere near me. "I thought it was a rattlesnake," I said sheepishly. "We don't have any around here. Long Eddy, Hancock, they've got plenty, none around here." I felt slight relief. "Thanks Ray, you're my savior," I said as we parted. After searching the Internet for milk snakes, and seeing a photo of the exact snake I saw, I still couldn't get the feeling of fear out of my body--like I had an adrenaline hangover. I knew I had to go back outside, into the sun and work on the garden. If there was a horse around I had to get back on it. I couldn't be afraid of my own yard. After hauling on my heavy hiking boots I grabbed my weed whacker and took to the grass, confidant that whatever snakes existed were no match for me. So today, when I see the movement in the grass and part of the garter snake's long body sliding easily up to the stone wall and through one of the holes, I no longer worry. I may feel a tingle of fear, but my heart doesn't pound. I just say "garter snake" and keep going.