Delta Dreaming: Relatives

Garrison Keillor, host of public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion," once observed that if you talk to a Southerner long enough, the conversation will eventually turn to snakes. That’s true in the Delta where one has to learn to live with the creatures in either harmony or constant fear. We mainly choose harmony.

We possess a plethora (oh, I’ve always wanted to use that word) of attitudes about our reptile cousins. They range from instant execution on contact to handling poisonous vipers as part of religious ceremonies. Don’t ask.

Variety exists in abundance in the Wattensaw community. There is a photo a Brenda’s grandfather, a lanky six-footer, holding a deceased rattlesnake almost as long as he was tall that took up residence in his barn. Of course no true Southerner has ever seen a common Yellow Belly Water snake, Nerodia erthregaaster flavigaster. No, anything near water is automatically a Water Moccasin, Agkistrodonpiscivorus. Despite the fact that they are short and stubby, secretive, and can’t climb, coffee shops in the South abound with tales of six foot “Mocs” lying in ambush, invading homes, dropping from trees, or slithering into boats. Go figure.

As stated in the herpetology blog at the University of Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Museum, “The hiss of an Eastern hog-nosed snake as it spreads its neck and acts like a cobra can be quite startling.” Surely Heterodon platirhinos is the best actor of the reptile visitors. Also called “The Spreading Adder” or “Bluff Adder,” when its false bravado fails, it goes into comedy phase and plays dead. It rolls on its back and, if righted, will roll right back over and resume the deceased position.

The late Edward Morgan, Ph.D and college roommate, explained that the act of expanding its head removes the air from the poor creature’s brain and it does actually “faint.” Oddly, it has small fangs that secret enough poison to dispatch its favorite meal, a small frog.

This is all by way of introducing a friend who has taken up residence in our okra patch. It’s a small garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, and he seems both unafraid of and unimpressed by humans. He moves from plant to plant to allow his human cousin to harvest the okra and surveys the rest of his surroundings with regal detachment.

He says his name is “Stripes,” and that he has a sister somewhere named “Stars,” but I think he is joshing me. I asked him if it is true that, in the Victorian era, a young woman might allow a garter snake to slither around the embroideries of her bodice for sport. He says that, as far as he knows, Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Teddy, was the only person guilty of such an injustice and that he chooses not to discuss this sad period of his species’ history further.

So, I left him on his “branch throne,” watching the dogs at play. If he begrudges them their legs, he didn’t say. Actually, he seemed fairly content with his life which is more than most folks can say.


Be able to recognize the dangerous snakes, spiders, insects, and plants that live in your area of the country. - Marilyn vos Savant

"Stripes," performing what he calls his "Head-dangle Trick" for me.
"Stripes," performing what he calls his "Head-dangle Trick" for me.

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The von Tungeln Family Tree
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