Friday, September 4, 2015

Old Friend Corn Snake

Corn snakes and I grew up together in the Sandhills of North Carolina. 

My home was located amid the long leaf pines and scrubby old oaks at the end of a long narrow driveway in the southwestern corner of Harnett County. 

The tires of our family car piled the pure white sand into a ridge in the center and built soft sandy shoulders on either side, and the wire grass grew thick along the center ridge and both shoulders. 

In summer, every day we found snake tracks in the sand, and many days we'd find the track maker as well; at night, we'd squeeze forward from the back seat to spot the glowing eyes of the whip-poor-wills chilling in the sand under cover of the wire grass clumps.
As often as not, we'd spot a copperhead or mole kingsnake instead.

The driveway was bounded by cultivated fields on either side; one was generally planted in corn, occasionally soybeans, and the other became a permanent field of lespedeza for most of my childhood years. Before they all left, the bobwhite loved the lespedeza for both cover and seeds.  

Beyond the lespedeza field was a beautiful stand of long leaf pines which extended along and beyond a high sandy ridge from the top of which we'd watch the paratroopers jump at the Ft. Bragg drop zones, several miles distant.

Beyond the cornfield was a neighbor's house, surrounded by long leaf pines, and a series of old fields. And behind our house, as far as a boy might roam, there were long leaf pines and turkey oaks with the occasional hickory and black gum thrown in for good measure.

And all across this landscape, both day and night, there were snakes...

Corn snakes, for sure; plenty of them, but lots of others, too.

There were black snakes - black rat snakes, black racers, coachwhips,

eastern hognose snakes and eastern kingsnakes.

There were green snakes, quite easy to spot among the brown cornstalks in fall, but virtually impossible to locate during the long, green days of summer.

And of course there were the northern pine snakes, or bull snakes, as we called them.  I remember extracting a six footer from a neighbor's chicken coop, and Dad once found one closer to seven crossing that sandy ridge in the pines.

Growing up wild in the Sandhills had many perks, not the least of which was spending hours and hours roaming the woods and fields and sandy lanes with creatures such as these. We commonly encountered a dozen species of native snakes on our little acre of western Harnett County, not counting the occasional legless glass lizard, which looked and moved an awful lot like a snake.

My dad taught first grade, and his classroom was a microcosm of the natural world which many of his students had never really noticed, much less explored or spent much time contemplating. 

Many of our encounters with the native reptiles led to a detour through Mr. Randolph's ongoing and ever-changing natural history curriculum at Johnsonville Elementary. 

The corn snake was consistently a cooperative partner in Mr. Randolph's nature and wildlife lessons. 

Strikingly beautiful, strong, curious and remarkably docile, 

 corn snakes provided children an opportunity to interact directly with a "dangerous" wild animal
 and not only come away unbitten and unscathed, 

but empowered and confident, 
with heightened respect for themselves and these impressive creatures,
and a far better understanding of our shared reliance on the natural environment.

After a few days, the corn snake would be returned to the woods and fields around our house, where it rejoined its reptilian kin and the fox squirrels and the bobwhite quail and the screech owls and the myriad other creatures that shared our little patch of pines.

Today, Brother Henry lives only a couple miles from that little dirt driveway that leads to our childhood home, and when he encountered a beautiful pair of mature adult corn snakes in an old field this week, we were thrilled to consider that these magnificent creatures might be descendants of one of old Jim Randolph's "teacher's pets" from three decades back. 

In spite of a human population which has increased a hundredfold (or more) in this no longer quite so  rural community, these wild creatures appear to be thriving on the relatively small patches of remaining natural habitat.

And, as we watch one of the next generation of Randolphs interact with the present generation of corn snakes, we're filled with hope for the future of this remarkable region we all call home.

With continued education and a renewed conservation ethic, perhaps many more human generations will have an opportunity to know our old friend corn snake...  


  1. Jimmy, in my mind, I've just taken a trip back to a very familiar place which holds many fond memories. Of those memories, many took place down that long, narrow, sandy driveway where Mr. and Mrs. Randolph and their four kids lived. Other memories originated out of Dan'l and Beck's home out on Highway 27. You know the places...and the people to which I refer. I don't recall noticing any corn snakes in those locations, but then, I didn't take much notice of any part of the natural landscape...until I was slowly introduced to it by Jim, Jimmy, and Henry. I am one of those who rarely took time to look closely and notice details until I met this very unique family. Even though I still may not look closely enough, I do so way more now than before and am continually amazed at the beauty that is all around us wherever we are. And I have found that to be true, not only in nature, but even in people's personal lives. Too often we stop with what we see on the surface and never take the time to look deeper and closer to discover the details of their lives. So, thank you, Mr. Corn Snake for the memories. This has been a wonderful morning!

  2. Another fine venture where pen complements lens, and memories fuel the tale's telling, and I'm glad for these glimpses into the often unseen and frequently unnoticed (as the previous commenter so nicely captures).