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Get out of the woods

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I'd like to warn you about a section of forest in Orange County. Unless you're wearing hip boots and brandishing a big stick, you should avoid it, and no one knows why but me. It's time that I confess.

Nearly three decades ago, I moved to a community in Durham County known in the '60s as Fancytown. My house sat among other old houses, barns, lumber piles, underbrush and old tires—a happy, hippie place back then. I began to raise my babies there, and they began to play around all this jumble before long, alongside the place's requisite critters—rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs, chipmunks and, yes, snakes.

Black snakes we could appreciate: They kept the mice down, and they did us no harm. But the copperheads were another story. They were venomous, and my kids were small. The snakes lurked between hay bales and basked in the camouflage of warm leaves. They surprised us when we moved lumber or simply stepped out the door. It was only a matter of time before one of us would be struck. But we were peaceniks and vegetarians. We didn't kill animals unless they were mosquitos. This was a dilemma.

I did a little research and found that copperheads are territorial, living permanently within a small radius of where they are discovered. They are able to travel back home up to five miles if they are relocated. Relocated! I'd found the answer to our problem. And so began my campaign to remove copperheads—alive and unharmed—to live elsewhere.

In the intervening years, I think I've caught about 20, with the barehanded technique that involves a forked stick, the one-chance grab behind the triangular jaw, the quick toss into the bucket and the even quicker lid-snap. Each time, the adrenaline pumps anew, and the hands hesitate in anticipation of handling that purely muscular and treacherous being. Once my son (past 18 at that point, I promise) and I spent a solid hour clipping a huge and desperately angry copperhead out of a tangle of bird netting, starting with the tail and working forward. It was very careful work.

After each capture, the bucket goes into the car. I drive away. I drive off the farm, turn right on Old Erwin toward Chapel Hill and travel down the road until passing Interstate 40. There, on the right, sits a large tract of undeveloped woods between the four-lane interstate and a stretch of high power lines. During my missions, I pull over and take the bucket to the edge of the woods, loosen the lid and tip the puzzled thing out into its new home. For 29 years, this has been my attempt at homeland security.

Sometimes, when I drive over the interstate, I glance over to the woods and imagine those snakes all in a line, looking out over the highway and considering a slither for it, back to my place.

But I'm safe, so long as traffic continues to flow well.

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