Monday, November 7, 2011

The Hoarding Heart - DeKay's Northern Brown Snake

DeKay's Northern Brown snake, Phippsburg, Maine October, 2011
The brown blotch on the side of the face is an identification mark.
To give you an idea of how tiny this poor thing is, here it lies against a measure. Four to five inches sounds like a lot. But, in my hand it barely had presense at all. By the way, it was not made in Japan.
The rows of little spots running parallel along the body are identification marks, too.
The underbelly of the DeKay's Brown Snake.

   This bitty, DeKay’s Brown snake was brought to me by a neighbor just two days ago. She found it while she was raking her yard.
     My neighbor, Belinda is obsessed about the leaves; autumn drives her crazy!  She can't stand it when there are leaves around. At night, she lies awake listening for the leaves to fall; before they hit the ground, she whisks them up. Here, the oak leaves are the last to release, so are often bound in snow and ice by the time they flutter from the canopy. Because the oaks' abscission is delayed, leaf clean up goes on for weeks driving Belinda to the brink of distraction.
     A fastidious person, she needs everything in its place and a place for everything. To her, leaves that aren't on trees are in florid disarray. It's as maddening as if someone had taken a dresser full of clothing and dumped the drawers’ contents onto the floor. She can't abide a mess of any kind. Belinda does have a dog, but amazingly, there is not a stray dog hair to be found in her house. There are no piles of newspapers, no crumbs on the counters, no dishes in the sink. She becomes so agitated it makes me wonder what she is really trying to clean up. Is this near-mania to put her external environment in order driven by the some internal filth that she can’t quite reach?
     I'm not an ardent housekeeper. Dog hair blows around my floors like tumbleweeds on the high sierras. Cob webs festoon my curtain less windows and drape from every corner. My kitchen counters are strewn with unimaginable clutter - coupons I think I'll get around to using, newspaper clippings I plan to read, notes with phone numbers, empty jars, wine bottles, you name it.
     Additionally, there are assorted containers housing caterpillars, pupae, frogs and sometimes snakes. Everybody is being tended until hatch day or photo shoot day. Eventually, I release them. But some of them are there through the winter waiting for warm weather to come around again. The jumbled muddle does get on my nerves sometimes. But, generally I have a high tolerance for ambient disorganization.
     It's not that I object to house cleaning. But, there’s so much other interesting stuff to be doing, like reading about snakes. I embrace mind over clutter, because there is only so much time in the day. And mine isn’t going to be spent in the pursuit of nasty neatness.  Besides, bad as my housekeeping is, I probably won't find anything as interesting as a snake. I may have a messy home, but I’ve got a clean heart. At least, that's my current rationalization for my state of affairs that some would call frank hoarding.
     The concept of hoarding in a diagnosable way has gotten a lot of attention lately. There are a couple of television programs devoted to it. The workings of the minds of people who wind up living on top of trash heaps in their own homes fascinates me. Neuro chemical disorders such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder are at the root of it for many people. But, that's only where it starts. The swirling chemistry internally becomes insurmountable chaos externally. Every one of us has this chemistry in our brains. It’s just a question of quantity and what degree of control we may have over it in any given moment. It can start with something as small as a spider in a jar.
     If given the opportunity to survey my kitchen counters, Belinda would declare "Disgusting! Get rid of it!" She doesn't fathom the anxiety it provokes in me to toss things. Because, I might not get that one great photograph or a morphing caterpillar, or web spinning spider. Nor do I understand the turmoil that falling leaves cause her.
     She does get some things about me, though; she brought me the snake. Had her guts not been in a knot over the leaves on her lawn, she would not have found it. Before knowing me, she would have killed it, too. There are probably plenty of these snakes in my yard. But, I've missed them all because they are hiding under undisturbed mountains of leaves. Now that bothers me! Deep inside, Belinda's heart and mine aren't so far apart.
     Pythons are being studied because of the astonishing capacity of their hearts to grow large, quickly. Pythons can go as long as a year without a meal. Their metabolism becomes very slow and their organs small while they endure periods of starvation. When they do eat, their metabolism jump starts, putting huge demands on their organs. Their hearts may grow as much as forty percent in a matter of hours, much as an athlete’s heart grows large over time, to meet the human body’s metabolic demands. Scientists are studying the enzymes in pythons’ hearts. The enzymes may have applications for the human body in treating heart disease. Could a drop of snake’s blood mixed with your own save your life one day? Perhaps so!  
     This is a baby, DeKay's Brown Snake. It was probably born in September. DeKay's snakes only grow to about ten inches or so long. It was on the brink of hibernation, so barely moving. Almost frozen, it did jiggle the end of its tail when disturbed. Like a starving python, its metabolism had slowed to conserve energy. These secretive snakes spend most of their lives underground, but during heavy rains they will sometimes go out into the open. This usually happens in October and November and during late March and April when they are moving to hibernation or breeding spots. 
     DeKay's have adapted to areas inhabited by humans and favor living under trash piles. Widespread and common, they can be found across most of the United States. Because they are small and nocturnal, they are not often seen. They are non venomous. When they do feel threatened they’ll flatten their bodies out to appear larger, position their bodies in an aggressive posture and release a musky smelling fluid. “Snake juice” on your hands has a distinct smell. I know. Though not endangered, the Maine Department of Inland Fish And Wildlife lists their conservation status as of special concern.
     They eat tiny mollusks, slug, small salamanders and worms. They have specialized teeth and jaws that enables them to pull snails out of their shells and eat them. Gardeners should regard them as beneficial for their slug and snail preferences. DeKay’s Brown Snakes are eaten by dogs, cats and hawks, crows, Jays, weasels, other snakes, frogs and toads. James Edward DeKay, for whom the snake was named, was an American naturalist in the 1800’s. He identified over 1,600 species.  Mr. DeKay must have spent a lot of time raking leaves. So, maybe I’ll go out and rake some leaves after all, and maybe find a snake. 

 Thanks in part for some of the information:
Jonathan Mays, Herpetologist Maine Department of Inland Fish And Wildlife
Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. 2008. The Animal Diversity Web (online). Accessed at
    Phil Roy, Adopter Maine Herpetological Society
Seaholm, L. 2000. "Storeria dekayi" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed November 07, 2011     


  1. The snake is quite interesting but I loved this line: "But, generally I have a high tolerance for ambient disorganization." This sums me up perfectly!

    keri h
    November 07, 2011 11:45 AM

  2. Fascinating post...spanning neurotic cleanliness, hoarding, and small eastern snakes. Good stuff!

  3. Seagull Steve, thank you! Takes a certain kind of wierd talent to knit all that together in any kind of cohesive way at all! Thank you for noticing and for the compliments.

  4. keri h, I think we should have a support group or at least a friendly club, don't you? Thank you for the read and compliment.

  5. Anne Camille JongleuxNovember 7, 2011 at 2:25 PM

    I get "ambient disorganization"! It saddens me that I probably have creatures such as a Dekay's Brown Snake in my yard and have never noticed them!

    Anne Camille Jongleux
    November 07, 2011 01:30 PM

  6. I am always struck by the uniqueness of your writing. You use animals and habitat as general themes and tie in the human condition. Not everyone thinks that way, but I am one that does. I love watching nature shows or studying animals in nature in order to figure out human problems.
    And I've learned a lot about snakes here. awesome job and a ton of research put in here too , wow.

    Heidi Herron
    November 07, 2011 01:55 PM

  7. what an incredible post learned a lot! thank you


    Jonathan Wolfman
    November 07, 2011 02:00 PM

  8. "Their hearts may grow as much as forty percent in a matter of hours" holy crap!!
    Learned a great deal from this piece, and loved the flow

    hyblaean- Julie
    November 07, 2011 02:22 PM

  9. Robin, you're a riot!! Great post today.

  10. KaHolly, thank you. I'm taking that as a compliment. The riot part, I mean.

  11. Great story but,why are you calling me belinda ?

  12. Again...beautiful!!!!!

  13. I think you and I would get along quite well; there are too many interesting things out there in the world that I might miss if I'm cleaning my house!!! What an interesting little snake.

  14. Fascinating info about snakes, especially the phython! Glad Peter rakes our leaves...I am not fond of surprises, especially reptile ones! In reference to your housekeeping...I have always found it to be neat with an eclectic flare for interesting collectables.

  15. You are something else! Wonderful research on your part.
    Story was funny. Here I am laughing by myself. Love Rita

  16. I feel exactly the way you and Keri do. I love the randomness of nature. Unfortunately with all our cats and chickens roaming the yard I'm afraid an DeKay's brown snakes would have to stay hidden more than usually.

    Matt Paust
    November 07, 2011 08:59 PM

  17. What a great photo, and educational too. I have always been fascinated by snakes and will keep an eye out for one of these little beauties. Thanks Robin

  18. Thanks, Jim very much. Keep your eye to the ground!

  19. Wonderful story again Robin... !
    So complete and also leaving one to ponder one's own conceptions on many levels. Loved the ending with raking your own leaves. Your neighbor is a well of material and You know how to tap it, with your own spin. I love your writing, simply put.
    Oh the snake information is intriguing too!
    Tell me more about your hoarding atmosphere... I would send You photos of mine in Ohio (as I have recorded some images for my own reference and to warn people before I meet them),, if You want to see and compare notes. Seriously. Talk about self portraits.
    You are an incredible artist and writer.

  20. Don, Wow! What a wonderful compliment from you. Thank you. I'll gladly share my hoard with you. It would be an interesting photo assigment to photo all the natural history objects in my house. I'll think about that this winter.

  21. Noreen O'Brien (FB)November 8, 2011 at 9:15 AM

    Great piece, Robin. Love the wee DeKay's snake. Such a sweet disposition and with it being so small it makes for a perfect introduction species of snake for children. Well done.

  22. We have lots of snakes here and a couple times I have found them in the house! Just the harmless ones though!
    Great article~

    Susie Lindau
    November 08, 2011 09:40 AM

  23. I love reading your pieces and admire your photography! There's always so much to savour and to return. Besides the information on creatures of nature and their habitats, I enjoy a peek into your own life and feel vicariously "validated" after reading your "high tolerance for ambient disorganization".
    November 08, 2011 11:14 AM

  24. Susie and FusunA, thanks muchley for the reads and rates and compliments. I've yet to find a snake in my house, no matter how many dust bunnies I suck up. That's because it would delight me. People who usually find snakes in their houses aren't too thrilled, but I would be! And, FusunA, you can usually rely on me for some sort of validation when it comes to domestic weaknesses. HA!

  25. Roberta Lane commented on your link.

    Roberta wrote: "Wonderful Blog as always, Bird Lady! I too "embrace mind over clutter" You are a terrific writer! :-)"

  26. Wonderful post filled with interesting information, great humor and terrific photographs! Fabulous!

  27. Julie G., thanks very much. Your comment makes me feel like I hit all the basics of a decent blog. Here's hopin'!

  28. Oh, good - now that I know you like snakes, I'll make your day by dropping off a couple of 18-foot Burmese Pythons that inhabit my swamp. They're just waaay too big to be manageable now, and the neighbors get really jumpy when the huge reptiles slither into their yard, especially if their kids are outside.

    Ever the naturalist, I recently wondered what they'd been eating (the pythons, not the kids). I had the Maine Department of IF&W capture them for me, then we did a CAT scan. The first one had my neighbor's cat in its stomach (that's why we did a CAT scan), and the other one had eaten and partially digested a deer and an adult male Tea Party Republican. Too bad about the deer!

    Great post, BTW. I even learned a new word - "abscission". Now, that doesn't happen every day!

    El Jefe

  29. Chrissie Prissie (OS)November 9, 2011 at 9:09 AM

    I've grown to love your stories, your pictures, your sense of humour and your clean heart!
    I have a few Belindas in my life; they can, at times, make me crazy!

    Chrissie Pissie
    November 08, 2011 04:18 PM

  30. Fascinating post, Robin! You cram so much into it; intelligent discussion, interesting read. I love it.

  31. Hilke, thank you very much. I haven't heard from you in quite a while, so this was a double delight.

  32. What a sweet little thing! I'm glad you and your neighbor got to see it and care for it. And thanks for not going off on the usual "snakes are gross and scary" spiel -- enlightened people know better!

    Felicia Lee
    November 08, 2011 06:03 PM

  33. Geez, Felicia I'm pleased that anyone would think of my as enlightened.

  34. oh what a lovely little snake!

    Poppi Iceland
    November 10, 2011 01:15 PM

  35. Robin,

    I always enjoy your blogs. What a photographer and what a gardener you are! You are motivating me today to go out in the relative balmy 60 degree temp to clean up my garden for winter.


  36. Polly, thank you very much. I was out gardening today and found a full afternoon's worth of weeds to pull. Pretty amazing for the middle of November and I was only wearing a shirt, no jacket! I'll be glad I spent the time come spring.

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