This entry is part 17 of 29 in the series Conversari


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This almost belongs in the Manual series, but for the fact that I didn’t write it. The text, and the object to which it refers, came from the pen and knitting needles of Rachel Rawlins, and you can see both at twisted rib. While there, you can click on the conversari tag and browse her half of our on-going, inter-blog conversation in words and images, originating in more quotidian exchanges via email, IM, etc.: one of those sprawling conversations that just keeps sprouting new, sometimes grotesque branches and digressions, grows ever more firmly rooted, and seems as if it might go on forever.

I shot the footage of the garter snake ball yesterday morning, while rushing back and forth between the houses to bake bread. (A mention made it into the Morning Porch, whence, curiously, Luisa also derived the image of a heart.) I felt I had to make the film fairly abstract, since I already made a videopoem with more straight-forward footage of a garter snake mating ball two years ago. On that occasion, I also uploaded an 8-minute video of the orgy. This time, I grabbed my regular camera and managed to get one half-decent still photo:

garter snake mating ball

It was a thing of beauty, albeit hair-raising as always. Incidentally, I’ve probably said this before, but our robust garter snake population in Plummer’s Hollow is, I think, a direct consequence of our decision to stop mowing the lawns. If you like reptiles and amphibians and want to encourage them around your own home, the best thing you can do is transition to a less-managed landscape. Call it Daoist gardening if you like.

Garter snakes usually form mating balls immediately after emergence from hibernation in spring, but sometimes they mate in the fall, too. The great American poet Stanley Kunitz wrote about encountering one such coupling — “that wild braid” — in his iconic poem “The Snakes of September.”


Right before I woke up
I was having the time of my life.
One for the cutworm & one for the crow,
I told the bartender.


The sky got light without me.
I was in the shower, & then
I had a thought that hurt
& I had to suck on it for awhile.
Four years after my last cigarette
& I’m still a smoker.


All the while I sip my coffee
a tom turkey up on the ridge
recites with great enthusiasm
from the endless list of his virtues.


It’s cold. The sun is trying to shine
through the bare April trees.
The high ceiling of clouds
begins to thin; dim
shadows form. But
the winter wren couldn’t sound
more delighted with
the upturned butternut tree
above the creek, the grotto
where its roots had been.
Troglodytes troglodytes, how
you dance! Bob & bow
& pump the tiny teapot of your body
up & down. Then let
the song spill out: one half
a rush of mountain air, the other
a trickle under the rocks, silver & thin
like an exposed root. I lean
breathless over the porch railing.
Friend, I murmur, spelunker,
little poet, you got it right.


I spotted something I can’t describe.
I’m not even sure I saw
what I think I saw.
But I remember what had been
rattling around in my head
at that very moment:
from the Book of Exodus, that phrase
the bone of the day.


O.K., snakes. All in a ball. The common eastern garter snake. You know what it looks like, right? Only, picture twelve of them (as it turned out), tying & retying an endless knot. There’s one at the center that’s larger than all the others; we’ll assume she’s female. Only she remains calm & relatively still. The others writhe and enwreath her, sliding, trembling, intertwining yellow stripes & green & bluish brown & the pale bellies.

We stood watching as this thing, this mass of snakes rolled slowly down the lawn, fell apart, reformed. It made us dizzy to try & count the heads. Tongues in constant flicker: what an elixir must that pheromone be, we thought, almost jealous, noting no sign of aggression among all those squirming males. Once we saw the female stretch her jaws wide in an apparent yawn.

It was late morning. The sun by this time had broken through the clouds & the temperature had risen from the 20s to nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit. There was still a bit of shiver in the breeze. It seemed to me as if the whole air trembled, & the titles of books from my poetry collection began to haunt my tongue: The Arrangement of Space. Figures of Speech. The Laws of Falling Bodies.* I thought of clocks and Eden and the fabled ouroborus, the Appalachian hoop snake that’s said to take its tail between its teeth & roll down hills.

At length the female made a break for it, sliding smoothly out & racing off toward the stream. She managed to lose all but one who, perhaps according to plan, caught up with her in a little pit outside the wind. There they made what seemed at last to be the definitive braid. The lawn was full of snakes gliding in all directions, their little pink flames trying to pick up the scent. First two, then three others found the couple & insinuated themselves into the braid as best they could. Another tangle formed, but this time two heads remained still, the smaller male’s resting behind the larger female’s, the tongues quiet in their mouths. For close to an hour those two pairs of nearly sightless eyes stayed pointed in the same direction, gazing toward the maple tree. But who knows what they really saw? A world of pure sensation, I suppose. I remember the sound of Japanese temple bells: not a clang – far from it! But a low & resonant boom you hear with your entire body & it just goes on and on until the hills soak it up & gradually the day returns to its dailiness, with only some minor, barely perceptible shift from what it had been.


Clutch, muse: hold
this tremolo note. Sing
of the cargo cult, the blazing
egg-shaped sun, the long
parturition. Multiple
paternity is common
says the field guide, though
each male deposits a so-called
copulatory plug. The wetter
the summer, it seems,
the larger the clutch.
Dozens of young are possible.
In goldenrod time
the shells will dissolve inside
her oviduct &
the bright-striped
birthlings pass whole
through their mother’s cloaca
& into another dark crack
in the earth or under a rock.
They ball together then, reform
the ball they formed in her body,
ontogeny recapitulating erogeny:
oh beautiful cluster
fuck, oh holy clutch.

*The authors are Martha Collins, Enrique Linh and Kate Light, respectively.

Incidentally, this all happened last Wednesday; I’ve been brooding on it since then.