Some years back, I was out on Peyton Creek (Flint Hills, Chase County, KS) getting ready to help my Uncle Mike work the vineyard. It is long tradition for nephews visiting close relatives to be included in all activities, particularly labor. (Our nephew JD, currently living with us, may harbor misgivings about this hallowed tradition.) Anyway, you read correctly: a vineyard in Kansas. Uncle Mike and Aunt Jaque worked several acres of them for years, along with a friend who came up from Wichita, and got pretty good results considering the myriad dangers and caprices of Kansas agriculture.
The ranch is very traditional. Nothing’s name ever changes. The carriage-room, which is now a second TV room, is still called the carriage-room, and the saddles and tack still hang there. The granary has not stored grain for, gods, it must be over half a century. Maybe more. Never mind; the granary it is and remains. The feel of tradition is as delicious as range-fed Kansas beef, or the apple pies my great-grandmother used to make, nearly blind, in the same kitchen she had used for some 75 years. And one of our traditions is that we don’t kill something unless we need to. There is a reason the ranch has diverse wildlife, its own spirit: if we can, we let it live.
So, the nephew was underneath the tractor attempting some mechanical task as requested by Uncle Mike, futzing with tractor doodads he did not understand, out in front of the granary (now used mainly to store stuff, such as nylon netting once used to try and shield grape vines from avian predation). I heard Uncle Mike call out to me from the granary: “John?”
“Yeah, Mike?” Only when I had nephews of my own did it occur to me that my uncle would always enjoy being called by the title of honor, ‘Uncle.’ Wish I’d figured that out a lot sooner.
He asked the magic question. “How are you with snakes?”
“Pretty good, Mike. Why do you ask?”
“Well, in that case, come on in here.”
So I rolled out from under the futile futz-fest, got up, and headed in. Whatever it was, it was going to be interesting. “Take a look over there,” said my uncle. There were two very large kingsnakes, both in a bad way. You know how fish get caught in nets, hooked by their gills and fins? Thus with snakes’ scales. Both were snarled up in the nylon netting, beyond extricating themselves. They’d lost a few scales struggling, though not much blood, and we could see that both were constricted where the netting hung them up worst. Most likely they were dehydrated. It was a warm spring afternoon, and one doubts they’d have made it through another day, weakened by a desperate struggle for liberty.
The thought of harming them, of course, didn’t cross our minds. Not only are kingsnakes non-poisonous, they consume great quantities of varmints. You’d no more kill an owl than a kingsnake. They’re our friends. Of course, they can bite if threatened, but like nearly all snakes, they just hope you’ll leave them alone so they can go consume some more varmints. We hope they’ll do it early and often.
Uncle Mike and I stood there for a few minutes figuring out the best way to save the snakes. One must respect wildlife’s potential dangers, especially suffering, starved, dehydrated wildlife. My uncle pulled out his Swiss knife and began to cut the netting. “John, let’s take them outside. You hold the snakes, and I’ll cut ’em loose.” Sounded like a plan, and soon Uncle Mike had the netting apart enough for us to bring them out one by one.
Now came the tricky part. When I said I was good with snakes, I didn’t mean I was a talented snake wrangler, simply that I didn’t run screaming when I saw one. I took the first snake gently behind the head, and held up its mid-body so my uncle could begin the really tricky part. You never saw such delicacy in your life. Strand by strand, patiently, kindly, he worked the tip of the knife under each strangling wire of nylon. I watched very closely as he managed it without costing the snake even a bit of blood. Remember how deeply the nylon was dug into the snake’s scales and flesh; impressive dexterity and gentleness. I’m still impressed.
It took about five or ten minutes, if I remember correctly; he worked from tail to head. With about half the snake loose, it began to make sinuous movements in my hands. Somehow I knew this wasn’t a fight to be free of my grasp, just getting circulation back. That snake had to be suffering something awful. When it calmed down, Uncle Mike went back to his work. Before long the final strand snapped free, the snake wormed around again, and I took it over and released it in the grass. It wasn’t far to water and food. That kingsnake was going to make it.
Snake #2 went more quickly, both of us having now had some practice. It behaved the same, and I let it loose over in the same deep grass. I can’t know, but it’s fairly safe to guess they lived long, happy serpentine Flint Hills lives.
I wish I remember what, if anything, Uncle Mike and I said afterward. I’m so gabby I must have said something, but it can’t have been too profound because I forget. I suspect that Mike and I just smiled, watched the snakes disappear into the grass, and got on with his plans for the grape vines. What I do know for sure is that it was one of our best moments together.