By mid-August, the garden is tired. So is the gardener. The once-tidy beds (all right, they were never tidy, but they were at least navigable) have degenerated into wilderness, like the moss-covered skyscrapers on that “After We’re All Dead” TV show on the science channel. Actually, left to its own devices, the yard would be in a more presentable state than it is after my meddling. When my folks built the place in 1960, the lot was native sod. Given its druthers, my little patch of ground would happily revert to a prairie landscape. Even now Mother Nature tries to sneak in a few specimens of cocklebur and quack grass among the more exotic varieties of weeds introduced through horticulture and bird poop.
Both the dahlias and gladiolas are in full glory at the moment – an occasion both for joy and foreboding, for while they are among the most spectacular blooms of the season, they are also among the last. Their appearance is a harbinger of things to come … and those things are mostly cold and white and require a shovel to remove them.
The brevity of a Minnesota summer makes it all the more precious. It’s partly for that reason that I tend to slack off on the weeding around this time. After two months of toil, it is time to reap the harvest: in my case, not produce but the abundance of beauty as my gardens reach their triumphant climax. If a garden were a fireworks display, now would be the moment the marching band enters playing “Stars & Stripes Forever” amid a cacophony of erupting Roman candles.
Tragically, I am not able to fully enjoy the Big Finish this year. A week ago I brought a book out to the rose garden, currently experiencing a fresh flush of beauty. I sat on the small bench there, in peaceful contentment, listening to the small, chirping birds, the sigh of the breeze and the incessant beep-beeping of the trio of anti-snake death sticks I installed earlier this summer. Coincidentally, it was at the very moment that I was reflecting on how damned irritating those beeps are when I spied something under the floribunda directly across from me.
It wasn’t a human head; that would have been okay … or at least less NOT okay than the wedge-shaped, beady-eyed, forked-tongue-flicking horror a scant two feet away. It was a snake, of course, curled up around the base of the rose bush, apparently attracted by the alluring concert of electronic beeps around it.
At least, I thought as my blood curdled in my veins, it is a small one. The head was about the size of the last segment of my index finger. However, as I allowed my gaze to travel from that head all along the ropes and coils of its body, I realized the rest of this thing was freakin’ huge. Assuming it was the same villain who prompted the purchase of the in-retrospect -wildly-overpriced anti-snake sticks, it was apparent that it had officially crossed that important threshold between “snake” and “serpent.”
I have a friend who worked in an office complex converted from an old hospital. Alone there one Sunday afternoon, she stepped out of the office to find a nurse standing in the hallway about halfway between my friend and the only exit.
A semi-transparent nurse.
My own predicament that moment in the garden was somewhat similar, except the nightmarish apparition that occupied the space between me and safety was a) not dead and b) failed to vanish into nothingness when it saw me looking at it. It just flicked its tongue and stared back at me.
Frankly, I think my friend got the better deal.
To make my egress through the narrow (and, one has to assume, snake-infested) arbor, I had to sidle past my enemy, literally within inches of that coiled form. It was important to make my escape stealthily, so as not to startle the creature into making a leaping attack at my ankles (I’m pretty sure they do that) or worse, slithering off into the larger garden beyond. There it would find an infinity of leafy undergrowth in which to … lurk.
Contorting my considerable bulk through a series of Ninja moves that would have won the top prize on “America’s Most Humiliating Home Videos,” I managed to elude the predator and escape, screaming, into the relative safety of the grassy backyard. I haven’t been back since.
And so, the dahlias are badly in need of dead-heading, the burgeoning mums are lost in a sea of pigweed and the unfettered grapevines have crept over the garden and are plotting to creep through my bedroom window and strangle me in my sleep. Meanwhile, I am confined to the margins of the green zones, pacing like a tiger in a cage, wondering what I’m missing.
For a hot minute I allowed myself to hope that my snake encounter was an isolated incident. Perhaps my tormentor was merely a tourist, passing through on his way from the farm fields south of town to the very snake-congenial swampy morass that backs the properties across the road. But yesterday I heard the back neighbor suddenly cry out, “There’s another one! Stay away from it, kids!”
It’s possible he was talking about a rare breed of fanged, rabid baby bunny, but it seems more likely he had stumbled on something with far fewer legs than a rabbit. Moreover, his use of the word “another” suggests this was in no way the first such encounter he’d had. The only logical conclusion to be drawn is that 1) the neighborhood is teeming with these things and, by extension, 2) we can expect a snakenado of writhing reptiles to drop from the treetops AT ANY MOMENT.
Someone at work noted that this is “a bad year for snakes.” On the contrary, I’d say it’s a pretty damned awesome year for snakes, what with the abundant moisture creating a never-ending buffet of slugs, mosquitoes and tadpoles on which the reptiles can feast … and grow. It is, conversely, a very bad year indeed for anybody who hates snakes as much as I do.
In a month or so, after the first hard frost has turned the dahlias black and the daylilies to mush, the snakes will creep into their burrows to wait out the winter. If the cold season is relatively mild, as it was last year, they’ll be back in greater numbers in the spring. For the first time in my life, I’m praying for a cold, hard winter. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!