Tuesday, May 13, 2008



A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides--

You may have met Him—did you not?
His notice sudden is--

The Grass divides as with a Comb--

A spotted shaft is seen--
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on--

He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn--

Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot--
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun

When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone--

Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me--

I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality--

But never met this Fellow,
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing,
And Zero at the Bone--

Emily Dickinson, 1865

One day last fall, as I was hiking in the woods, I heard a rustling in the underbrush, and spotted a strange sight: a chipmunk with a garter snake draped across its back. I stepped forward for a closer look, and the animals became aware of my presence. The chipmunk darted off one way, and the snake slithered off the other. I puzzled and puzzled over this scene as I finished my walk, and when I got home, I read up on chipmunks and garter snakes. According to my guidebooks, garter snakes occasionally eat small mammals and chipmunks eat what the guide book vaguely described as meat. So I am still left wondering. Did I rob the snake or the chipmunk of his lunch? If one wasn't stalking the other, how did they come to be tangled up?

I admit my instinct was that the snake was the aggressor. It is hard to look at a chipmunk and see it as a threat to other living creatures. The bright eye, the bushy tail, the smooth fur--they all seem so cuddly and cute. But the chimpunk also has sharp teeth and claws. If it wanted to, it could do damage proportionate to its size. The snake, on the other hand, has everything going against it. The cold dry scaliness of it, the alien way of moving, the heavy weight of cultural prejudice all combine to elicit that "zero at the bone".

In the end, though, I had to leave the question open. Looks can be deceiving, and just because culture tells us one of them is untrustworthy and dangerous does not mean in this case that the snake was fulfilling its iconic role. Perhaps the softer-seeming chipmunk was the danger to look out for. And that can be true in human pairings, too. We do not always fill the role culture dictates for us. One cannot always be sure who is the predator.


Wade said...

In my experience, a predator's greatest weapon is trust.

morpho aurora said...

people tend to forget that small, cute and cuddly does not always equal harmless. oh well, sometimes the learning experience is painful :D it was for my ex anyways

Anonymous said...

I need to start reading some emily dickens...
Glo, I think you're lucky to have seen that, I've never herd of that happening before...had to have been cool to see something most people wouldn't believe.
Good stuff. 8)

Kathy Kathy Kathy said...

Maybe the chipmunk wanted to see how she would look in a boa.

One night, driving near my house I saw a mouse run across the road in the beam of my headlights. Then a cat ran through the headlights chasing it, then a dog chasing the cat.