Grace. Grace of motion, grace of spirit, poise. Some have natural grace and you can easily see it, even by the corner of your eye, in an animal, insect or bird. I’d venture animals have not only grace of movement, but also grace of spirit. If you have that, you cannot hide it no matter what you do. Sometimes it spills out and shows itself in nimbleness of body and movement. This is certainly one of the ideas behind many martial arts. T’ai Chi, it is said, was inspired by the sight of a crane and snake fighting with soft, curling motions. The T’ai Chi forms are even named for patterns of movement in nature: Cloud Hands, Snake Creeps Up, Golden Pheasant, White Crane Cools Wings.
Grace combines tension, balance, order, in much the same way a work of art does. So it was a perfect marriage of genre to have a group of T’ai Chi practitioners on our front lawn last Sunday as the farmer’s market teemed with shoppers and folks readied themselves for the Diabetes Walk. Some wore T’ai chi uniforms-white flowing tunics and pants that reflected the white colonial revival house behind them. Others wore street clothes, the way you so often see people practicing martial arts in the parks of China. I recognized many of the forms from my study of T’ai Chi years ago. I used to love doing Cloud Hands. It’s only one tiny piece of a whole form, but I could do it for hours it relaxes me so. But on Sunday I focused on Snake Creeps Up. It is remarkable how this martial art so accurately portrays the real, organic movements. Snake Creeps Up grabbed me because we have an incredible snake down by the Pump House Bridge. We all just love that fellow, a huge Northern Water Snake that luxuriates on the far side of the bridge as you head toward the farmhouse. He’s an amiable sort. He’ll let you look at him from pretty close up if you are quiet and relaxed. Somehow he recognizes tension, and slinks off into the weeds. In no time he’ll be back, sunning himself and displaying his four inch diameter. I don’t actually know how long he is, since he tucks his rear into the brush and even when he turns around I’ve never seen the whole of him at once. But he’s just about always there, like a sentinel, recognizing those who belong, and warily regarding newcomers.
You sometimes see people react badly to snakes, screaming, running away, grabbing their babies. It’s instinct, I think, and most of the time you can’t get them to simmer down and they scare the wits out of the poor snake. So many myths have developed. Milk Snakes were named for their supposed ability to suck the milk from cows. They were killed en masse by farmers “protecting” their cattle, when in reality, the snakes hung around barns to eat mice and such. In a sad irony, the snakes were actually performing a service. Puff Adders are said to add poison to their breath, puffing it toward you in toxic, murderous clouds. But our Northern Water Snake is a gentle giant. Reports of snake size are usually on the fantastically generous side. But I’d say our guy is pretty well full grown, based on his coloring (he is very dark and his pattern is hidden. Youngsters show the pattern clearly) and a full-grown Northern Water Snake tops out at around fifty-five inches. So he might seem like a giant to some, but I hope they never see a grown up Black Rat Snake. They can get to be about eight feet.
I’m kind of psyched right now, since I think the big guy might be about to become a father. He has to have a lady friend at his age, and Northern Water Snakes give birth in August and September. This kind of reptile has live babies, not eggs. I’m not saying our snake is going to be handing out cigars, since snakes (especially fathers) have desultory parental feelings at best. But it is nice to think of him passing on his good nature to a new generation.
My tip-top favorite snake legend is that of the “hoop snake” who when threatened takes his hind end into his mouth, turns himself into a circle and rolls away like a wagon wheel to safety. I love the whole idea, and wish I could do it too, rolling away when times get tough. Since I can’t, and neither can any snake known of, I’ll just meander down to the bridge and relax with our big, old, comforting snake, and forget the cares of the world.
See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist