A WISE man said, long, long ago, that the way of a serpent upon a rock was too wonderful for him to know.
So when you meet Sir Talis you need not be ashamed if there are many wonderful things about him that you do not know. He may seem a bit mysterious to you as he glides out of sight.
This much you will know, of course—that you need never fear Sir Talis; for he is a peaceful garter snake with no harm in him for any man, woman, or child. He is a quite gentlemanly fellow who attends only to his own affairs.
Years ago, when noblemen wore silk and velvet clothes of rich and lovely colors, their garters were gay-striped ribbons. There is an ancient Order of the Garter having princes and knights for members. The badge of this Order is a velvet ribbon edged with gold.
If you look at Sir Talis with friendly eyes, you may perhaps be reminded of a ribbon striped with gold. For, along the middle of his back and low on each side, there is a yellow stripe running from head to tail.
Since the name of this graceful snake is written in learned books with sir to begin it, we may, perhaps, be excused if we speak of his father and mother as Sir and Lady Garter.
The mother of Sir Talis
These two old snakes spent the winter on Holiday Hill. At the back of a crevice under some granite boulders there was an opening into an underground apartment. A woodchuck had dug this cave and used it as its first tenant, but it chanced to be vacant at the time and quite satisfactory to the Garters.
During the warmer midday hours of autumn Sir and Lady Garter often took sun baths in their hillside garden. From time to time other serpents of the same kind joined them, until at last there was a rather large house party of Garters.
They were all very fat and too lazy to go hunting. Their favorite amusement seemed to be basking in the sunshine. They did not allow themselves to become too heated; but they enjoyed having the temperature of their bodies raised a few degrees. Quite likely this was the best sort of way for them to pass the last pleasant fall days, for they would have no sunshine at all during the winter.
It was fortunate that these snakes were so sociable in the fall for, before really cold weather overtook them, all they needed to do was to retreat to cozy Woodchuck Den. This proved to be an excellent chamber for their winter rest.
They had a queer ceremony to perform while they were preparing for their long sleep. All the snakes twisted and curled and tied their bodies together into one big bundle of serpents.
This may not seem to you to be a comfortable resting position; but you have never taken the sort of sleep those snakes had. All through the coldest weather they did not yawn or stretch. They did not move. Looking at them very closely, you could not have seen that they were even breathing. They did not eat a mouthful; but their bodies were fat in the fall and thin in the spring, and so we may know that they were nourished by their own fat.
Such an almost breathless and almost foodless winter sleep, which certain animals take in cold climates, is called hibernation. Not all hibernating creatures rest in companies, as many seek solitary dens. Some, however, collect in bunches. And it is interesting to know that earthworms even tangle themselves into balls, a great many together. Being somewhat snakelike in shape, this is easy for them to do.
The warmth of spring wakened Sir and Lady Garter and all the others of the snake company. They came into the open and enjoyed the sunshine as much as they had enjoyed it in the fall.
But the snakes had somehow changed. They were not fat and lazy. They had lost their idle sociable house-party manners. After their long fast they needed food. They felt like hunting. And, after the manner of true hunters, they went forth alone.
Lady Garter slipped quietly along her solitary trail. Soon she found herself beyond the foot of the hill and at the edge of Holiday Meadow.
She stopped there for refreshments. For her spring breakfast she ate earthworms with pleasure. There is really nothing that tastes better to a half-starved garter snake than earthworms.
Of course frogs are good, too—hind legs and all! So it is not strange that she followed the stream along the meadow's edge and came to Holiday Pond, where larger game was abundant.
The edge of the pond was a pleasant hunting ground
Lady Garter enjoyed the pond. She had not bathed all winter and her body felt very comfortable in the water. She soaked herself for some time. After she left her bath, she squeezed between two stones that were close together. As she pushed into the crevice she tore her skin near her jaws.
You need not feel sorry for Lady Garter. The torn place caused no pain. It was time for her to shed her skin. And thrusting her head between two rough stones was an easy way to begin to molt. It was not necessary to find a crevice at such times, but it was convenient.
After she had peeled her head, eyes and all, she crept on through the narrow place and freed herself of all her old thin skin, which she left behind her turned inside out like the finger of a tight glove.
The dry discarded molt did not remain long where it was left beside the stones, however. A crested flycatcher was delighted to find it; for a bird of this kind never seems to be quite satisfied with her nest unless it has a good snake-skin lining.
Lady Garter was a handsome reptile in her fresh garment of scales. Her eyes were bright. Her back and sides were olive-brown with three long yellow stripes. The under part of her body was pale yellow with a tinge of green.
Her spring and early summer passed pleasantly enough. There was plenty to eat, and there were quiet places to rest. No exciting change came to her way of living until August when she found herself with a family of baby Garters.
Many kinds of snakes lay eggs which they leave for the warmth of the sun to hatch. But garter snakes do not lay their eggs. They keep them in their bodies until the little snakes inside all the eggs are fully formed. Then the young are born and they are able to run about at once.
Lady Garter's family of infant serpents numbered thirty-six. That was a moderate-sized family because sometimes garter snakes have fifty or sixty babies or even more.
Sir Talis and his thirty-five brothers and sisters were each about six inches long when they were born, and they grew rather fast because they ate so many nourishing earthworms.
All the young Garters could do their own hunting. They even found their very first breakfast-worms for themselves. They were lively little things and enjoyed hunting for their food.
It was well for the mother that she did not need to pick up food and bring it to her three dozen youngsters. She had cares enough without attending to their diet of worms. For every time anything alarming happened, she was worried about her family.
She would lift her head and call "Hiss‑iss‑ss," and suddenly the young Garters would rush to their mother and almost immediately the whole family would be quite safe inside an underground den Lady Garter had chosen for her summer retreat.
Just how they all vanished so quickly and safely I, myself, never saw. During August and September I did not meet Lady Garter often enough for her to feel very well acquainted with me. There was always a stone or a bush or a hummock of grass between us. I never did get a clear view of that performance. So I have no records in my notebook about the mysterious disappearance of the Garter Family. I can only say that this is one of the wonderful ways of the serpent that I do not yet know.
The question is, after the mother snake lifted her head and gave her hissing call, did she hold her mouth open and did the little snakes rush into it? Did she then dart into the hole with them? Or did they merely run swiftly beside her and get into the hole that way?
Some people, who have written about garter snakes, have said that the mother snake never carries her very young babies to safety in her mouth and big stretchy throat. Would they, perhaps, have been wiser to say merely that they had never seen a garter snake do so?
For, on the other hand, some people who have watched very, very young garter snakes have a different sort of report to make. The most interesting account I have ever read was written by an acquaintance of mine who has kindly given me permission to quote from it as follows:
"The country school in Iowa which the writer attended was held in the ordinary frame schoolhouse supported by a 'cobblestone' foundation of water-worn rocks more or less embedded in mortar. The schoolhouse faced the south and a set of narrow steps led up to the single central door. Through the foundation wall about halfway between these steps and the southeast corner of the building, and about eight to ten inches above the surface of the ground, was an irregular opening about two inches in diameter. This opening was used as a refuge one spring and summer by a large and 'motherly' looking specimen of the common garter snake of the region. The snake kept close to the hole at first and disappeared at the slightest sound. Later as we became interested in it, it was not disturbed and became accustomed to the ordinary noises of the children and would, if not too closely approached, often lie in the sun alongside the wall during recess time. One day as we came trooping out at noon the snake raised its head several inches from the ground and opened its mouth quite widely. This rather frightened us and all eyes were on the snake, when from around the corner of the house and from farther away in the yard came a number of small snakes which rushed pellmell into the mouth of the mother. When the last one was in, the mother snake raised her head quite high, wriggled over to the hole and disappeared. She was back there again the next recess and the performance was repeated for a number of days."
Sir Talis and his brothers and sisters kept within hearing of their mother's call during their first weeks. They came and stretched out beside her when they went to sleep.
The youngsters had a happy time that fall. They were peaceful, contented little serpents; and their affectionate mother guarded them so well when they were afraid that their courage soon came back to them.
They were even prettier than their mother while they were small. The dark olive color of their skin was a bit more greenish. Their narrow yellow stripes were clear and bright. And young snakes are much more slender and graceful than older ones.
Of course if you had seen Sir Talis just before one of his molting times, you would not have thought him to be very good-looking. His coat of scales was rather dull then. His eyes seemed whitish and he couldn't see very well.
When his eyes troubled him like that, he rubbed his head against a stone. After he was rid of the old skin on his head, it was rather easy for him to creep out of what was over the rest of his body. So, presently, there was Sir Talis again as fresh as new!
Like all Garters, Sir Talis was shy. If a person came near him, he usually slipped out of sight swiftly and quietly. He was not a coward, however, and stood his ground bravely enough if he were cornered. But in spite of his courage, he could not hurt even a child; so it was fortunate that the grown people and children of Holiday Farm were friendly to harmless kinds of snakes.
Sir Talis had fine sharp teeth but there were no poison fangs in his mouth. His teeth were not for defense but to help him when he ate. They did not meet like chewing teeth but pointed inward. Since he could not chew he must swallow his food whole and the sharp slanting teeth helped push the food into his throat.
One of the queer ways of Sir Talis was that he could swallow a frog bigger than himself. His body walls stretched. He had an extra bone which hinged the upper jaw to the lower one and the jaws could spread wide apart. The two parts of his lower jaw could separate at the middle.
Thanks chiefly to earthworms and frogs, Sir Talis was fat before cold weather came. He felt rather lazy as he climbed Holiday Hill one day. He was glad to stop and join a Garter Party. Later, of course, he disappeared for the winter months, after the manner of his kind.
The ribbon snake, a slender relative of the garter snake
Perhaps you may meet him next spring while he is taking a sun bath on the hillside. And, as he vanishes among the rocks, you may think such swiftness in a creature with no feet is wonderful indeed. So it has seemed to wise men and poets. It was Emily Dickinson who wrote:
Yet when a child and barefoot, I more than once, at morn,
Have passed, I thought, a whiplash unbraided in the sun,
When, stooping to secure it, it wrinkled, and was gone.