Rat Snake

Rat Snake from Dave Bonta on Vimeo.

Several times a year, a black rat snake climbs the black walnut tree out back to get in my house and eat the rodents, for which I’m grateful. This video poem depicts its latest entrance.


We were just talking about you crooked tunnel

the way you funnel your long freight up the walnut tree serpent

& glide out along one diminishing limb until you reach the roof
drop into the gutter & loop into a squirrel hole above the kitchen

We’d just found one of your old skins snagged on a thorn
I don’t think he’s coming back for it I joked

And my neighbor glances up into the tree & says
Well there he is now

And there you were son of a bitch
still & heavy as a tongue with bad news

waiting for a signal neither of us caught
to set you back into motion into path into limbless dragon
flicking your soft Y of flame


Don’t forget to submit tree-related blog posts and photosets to the Festival of the Trees blog carnival, which next month will be hosted for the first time by an India-based blog, Trees, Plants, and more. Details on how to submit are here.

38 Replies to “Rat Snake”

  1. What a great video, dave. How lucky you were there with the camera to record that long slither from the branch to the gutter,and then out of sight. It’s like a ritual dance, cues and music out of our range.

    1. Glad you liked it, Robin. “Luck” barely begins to describe the spookiness of it, a real speak-of-the-devil moment, as the poem describes. (See “Snake in a Tree” from the related posts listing for my first photgraphic encounter with this snake on the walnut tree.)

  2. That was very cool. The timing of the poem with the movements of the snake worked well, and I loved the end(ing). One of my favourite snakes, too.

    1. Thanks, Hugh. I respect your opinion, but I’m not sure I agree about the ending. At any rate, I really sweated over the poem, but rather than wait until I was fully satisfied with it, decided to just get something out there — the blogger’s ethos!

  3. “slow and heavy as a tongue with bad news” — my favorite line — really neat poem and video. We have lots of black snakes (rat snakes, blue runners) around here and I always feel unaccountably happy when I see them.

    1. It’s good to hear that from someone who converted to nature-appreciation as an adult. Which is not to say that everyone who grows up in the woods is free of snake-phobia, either, a reaction which must be at least partly instinctual, I believe.

      1. It is indeed “partly instinctual”, or more precisely, “prepared learning”. IIRC, E.O. Wilson found that exposure to a snake, or even something that just moves like a snake, in a particular section of early childhood, tends to trigger the development of snake phobia.

        1. Yes, although I’m afraid I take most of E.O. Wilson’s sociobiological conclusions with a grain of salt. Culture overwrites the natural (genetic + random/environmental) template to a much more significant degree than he is willing to acknowledge, I think.

  4. i really like this poem, especially its beginning:

    “We were just talking about you crooked tunnel”

    and i continue to be amazed by — and envious about — how much you know about the habits of animals/plants/rocks (do rocks have habits? well, i’m not awake yet, maybe they do) around your house.

    1. Well, remember, I’ve lived here just about all my life, so it would be pretty amazing if I hadn’t picked something up!

      Rocks do have habits. But that’s another whole post…

  5. I like “limbless dragon” and “flicking your soft Y of flame” best. wonderful video. I saw a beautiful big rat snake at the Etowah Indian Mounds this past May. I was surprised that a man and his son of about 7 or so were observing it appreciatively and happily. got a couple of decent photos. thanks for this.

    1. Glad you liked it. I think snake appreciation is slowly spreading. Volunteers in Pennsylvania were able to coordinate quite a successful herpetological atlas project a few years back — huge numbers of herp fans came out of the woodwork. I was amazed.

  6. I think underlying that “son of a bitch” thrill of seeing a fat slow black snake is a cry of “Eureka!” at the wealth of such a food gift: the bug part of our brain wants to eat them. They’re a jewel of a meal, harmless and catchable, a blue black fruit. Seeing one means you won’t go hungry. It’s the height of sophistication to forbear making a meal of them while they rob your house of delicious snacks.

  7. Seriously, there is something ravishing about rat snakes that has to do with abundance. They’re as defenseless as a pig from Cockaigne.

  8. It’s not like I would ever eat one. I just don’t know how else to account for the feeling of windfall upon seeing one. They’re like wine-sacks, for goodness sakes!

    1. I think you might have a point! Or not. I thought it was the reptile part of our brain that underlay such responses, though. My brain has a bug part, too? This is news. It could account for my longing to walk upside-down on the ceiling, though.

  9. I’m going to babble about this for a minute, now that I’ve hung up on it for a day, and I’m crazy about snakes.

    Flickers: the name given by two Missouri girls to bits of zinc ore they found in their pasture while tending cows. Thought to be silver it was smelted but produced no yield, only a think cloud of fumes holding “the beautifullest rainbow”, the sign of zinc.

    The aerial abilities of black snakes, how from the grass they can, like astronomer astronauts, place a bird’s nest in their sights, then find the trunk and ascend to it. How they can ‘fly’, in the manner that lesser tree boughs fly. How air and earth blend at the fingers of trees. How the most ‘earthbound’ of creatures can crawl into the sky. How trees are a green sky. How the trunk is a route/root to the firmament (a beaten metal).

    I had more… If I were a poet, and my mind weren’t cheese, I’d do something with “flickers” and zinc rainbows and those two girls, modeling it in a rat snake ascending a tree. And there’s something mineral about a snake.

    1. But you are a poet, Bill.

      The aerial abilities of black snakes, how
      from the grass they can, like astronomer astronauts,
      place a bird’s nest in their sights, then find
      the trunk and ascend to it.
      How they can ‘fly’, in the manner
      that lesser tree boughs fly.
      How air and earth blend at the fingers of trees.
      How the most ‘earthbound’ of creatures
      can crawl into the sky.
      How trees are a green sky.
      How the trunk is a route/root to the firmament
      (a beaten metal).

      I enjoyed learning about this additional resonance that “flickers” has for you, too. Thanks.

  10. Bill, I don’t know you, but your poem is very fine. You seem to think in poetry. I especially love ‘how lesser tree boughs fly.’ what a pleasure to read this.

  11. Hey, thanks Dave-no-you’re-the-poet and Laura!

    I’ve got yet more clutter. The things aren’t in themselves clutter, they’re just not all very clearly related to your post:

    The way Levantine metal smiths would hammer out a sheet which would grow like a ‘spreading cloud’ from an ingot of smelted earth. (That’s the tree.)

    Ametal roof with holes. (Tree again, maybe your house.)

    ‘Meteoric’ black stone cupped in protruding lips on a bulging corner of the Kaaba. (Snake? Tree? Sky? I’m not sure.)

    The way a profile sits in a block of stone. (Not related.)

    Kiswah luffing in a puff of wind. (Totally not related.)

    Snake trapped between the broken ends of Asclepius’ rod (any rat snake worth its mettle would have flung itself off in a heartbeat). (Yes! Related. The snake.)

    Rat snake on watch, tefillin in a tree. (Could you go that far?)

    Rat snake as the crux, and as ornament, fibula between scapular sky. (Or this far?)

    Chester Burnett, in khakis and madras shirt, crawling on a stage singing Crawlin’ King Snake, just before he died. (By way of a change-up.)

    1. See, this is precisely what motivates me as a writer: to try and work seemingly unrelated images into new networks of associations. I’ve always thought of myself as primarily a syncretic rather than a purely creative thinker. But I like to make stuff; I wouldn’t be content just to toss images out there as you do. Probably that means you are better at practicing non-attachment than me. Fortunately I’m not a Buddhist. :)

      1. I wouldn’t be content just to toss images out there as you do — ah, but I’m not content. It feels destructive, a reaping of things before they’re ripe, making a certainty of failure. Anyway, if I were to write a complex, synretic poem it would be unprecedented. I don’t know how to do it. Maybe someday I will. I think I sort of did here, better than I ever have so far.

        I’m very pleased with your snake presentations. Without them I would never have had a clue how important the snake is, in ways I would never of thought. We’re all so busy running over them I think we may all forget. I get the feeling that I’m not wrong when I guess at their centrality (think thread) at the heart of things. Really, I had no idea (other than an urge to eat them!) Some might say that it could be anything, dwell on anything and it will become central to you. But today, with snakes, I feel certain that there is more to it. I feel they have preceded me. I like the way they go through the grass, piercing it, parting it, touching its surface with nearly half of their skin, laying across it — groins, throats, everything sole.

        No, I never came close to seeing Howlin’ Wolf. But yesterday I imbibed of the website of someone who did, who befriended him, took pictures of him, a youngster changed by the much older Wolf, Sandy somebody (good pictures, good stories). I had no idea Wolf acted out on stage. I’d thought of him as an old man in a chair, and maybe he was, but he had a long life as a strong man. I was pleased to read of him as sweet, responsible guy. Organized, middle-class. Angry, yes, but a good manager, a guy with a beautiful wife and a great marriage, a farmer who knew about snakes.

        1. Maybe you don’t need to write poems, Bill, and it’s I who should be envious of your awesome commenting skills! I like the way you brought it back to snakes at the end. And I’m pleased and honored that my snake video poetry has proved so stimulating. This is some deep terrain you’ve gotten into, I think. Thanks for sharing your thought processes with us here — this has turned into a very memorable thread indeed. (Well, any thread with Howlin’ wolf in it has got to be good.)

    2. I do wish there were more Howlin’ Wolf videos on YouTube. I’ve heard he had quite an interesting live act. Did you catch him before he passed?

  12. Bill,
    I like your clutter and your photographs. Why don’t you post more of your writing on your blog? I tried to post a couple of comments but my computer is being wacky today. do you have a flickr account?

  13. Laura, thanks. No Flickr account. I don’t create freestanding writing. I’m a symbiont to poets like Dave.

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