Robin Robinson

Robin Robinson
Phippsburg, Maine, United States
April 05
Queen Mum
Out Of The Blue
I'm a photographer, writer and gardener. I live on the coast of Maine. I live with a husband, dogs and a cat. I used to live with children but they grew up and left. I'm thankful for all of these things.

NOVEMBER 7, 2011 11:34AM

The Hoarding Heart - DeKay's Northern Brown Snake

Rate: 10 Flag
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 interesing 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     

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
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, thank you very much. I feel like maybe we should have a support group, or at least a friendly club. Don't you? Slobs-R-Us or something like that, perhaps.
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!
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.
what an incredible post learned a lot! thank you

"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
Anne, Heidi and Jonathan, thanks! I do so appreciate that there are those of YOU who appreciate the work that goes into my work. Heidi, I can't help but see the connections between us as humans and the rest of the world. I think it's a sad state of affairs that so many people have lost the ability to see those things, or simply never had it to begin with. So, if I can connect the dots for folks, YEAH!
hyblaean-Julie, Ha ha! That was so eloquent! Cracked me up. It is an alarming idea that a pyython's heart can grow that fast, isn't it?
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.
mmmmmmMATT! Keep those cats in the house ,will ya? and, maybe the chickens, too. Or in the pot. Whichever. Thanks for the read and rate.
We have lots of snakes here and a couple times I have found them in the house! Just the harmless ones though!
Great article~
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".
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!
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!
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!
Chrissie, and I FEEL your love across cyberspace. Thank you for being a loyal fan. It makes me feel really good and helps carry me forward on the writing path one step at a time.
oh what a lovely little snake!
Felicia, I'm flattered that anyone would think of me as enlightened. Thanks you!
Poppi. the snake and I thank you.
"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. " We moved 3 years ago and we had to toss 20 years worth of hoarded items - like a radio from a Volvo that we hadn't had for 15 years. It was gut wrenching and at the same time cleansing. Still, barely a day goes by that I "need" something that I tossed.
Our neighbor's leaf blower goes every weekend of the year. I can't imagine what he is blowing around...