The sun is going down on things I thought I knew.
For instance, I might need to start watering the snakes.
I was two rooms away this morning when I heard Cowboy do his snake bark outside but I try to be prepared for surprises here on the human-wildlife interface.
I keep various snake-removal tools at both the front and back doors. This time my store-bought, non-lethal aluminum snake stick with spring-loaded jaws was handy. It was just a young bull snake, seeming to grin up at me, hopefully it seemed.
I grasped the critter with the stick as gently as a could — I’m not a bare-hander like one of my neighbors — carried it across the walled-in yard and lowered it to the ground outside, hopefully without injury. It disappeared quickly, if only to regroup for another climb back over the wall. I usually like to use a hook instead of the jaws thing — less chance of snake injury, I think — but the stick with jaws comes in handy when faster action is required. Cowboy has been to rattlesnake awareness school and he wasn’t happy with the visitor this morning. This slim little critter could have easily scooted past me into the house as I surveyed the situation through an open door.
They seem to be going for water — or maybe mice who I see evidence of but whose hiding places I can’t find. I know snakes get hydration from stuff they eat, too, but I’m giving weight to the water theory because the one I removed this morning was taking the same route to Cowboy’s outdoor water bowl as the one I removed three times in two days last year. In other words, the arrivals and routes have become predictable.
Unfortunately the mice are part of the ecosystem, too. I think they come to the yard because of the seed and nuts spilled by scrub jays, wood peckers and Texas antelope squirrels. I have to keep the bird food inside of my wall to protect it from the free-roaming neighborhood horses. But I am too afraid of hantavirus to water mice as well as snakes. Cowboy would agree. Them meeces scare him to pieces.
The hard part of the snake thing is is that they always seem to be smiling, as if wanting acceptance or just free travel to Cowboy’s water bowl. It is, after all, June and something like the twentieth year of drought. The creek below my house, where neighborhood critters used to convene, dried long ago. This spring, we’ve been more than 60 days without rain.
So, I am more aware in this 21st Century that snakes need water, too. I’ve managed to keep the bird water pretty much just for the many small birds and occasional rodent interloper. Now I just need to figure out a snake watering system that doesn’t also attract wild horses, coyotes, bobcats, badgers and, gulp, cougars.
More 21st Century change: Medical treatments have improved. Leeches are no longer in use.
Just after the snake encounter this morning, when I felt like a border patrolman pushing an innocent family back through the fence, I caught myself almost sending a friend an out-dated book on prostate cancer, most recently copyrighted in 1997, just a few years before my experience.
Fortunately, I had the sense to Google “changes in prostate cancer treatment” before sending off a book that once was the bible but now might contain practically medieval treatments.
Just as the news business has gotten immensely more complicated since my 40 years on the job, my prostate cancer treatment experience now is mostly a matter of looking back instead of forward. My friend needs to listen first to his doctors. Things have changed since they advised me about the gold standards of my time.
(Update: I note that I received excellent care from Presbyterian after my lung cancer diagnosis in 2015. And on both cancer scores, the bottom line is I’m still kicking. I am thankful for effective treatment. All I’m saying is that cancer treatments, like all things, have evolved and improved over time).
And more change, like it or not: Wildfires, like newspapers, ain’t what they used to be.
I have experience as a wildland firefighter as well as with prostate cancer but the weather has changed, too. Fire behavior has become a study of extremes since my couple of seasons with the California Division of Forestry in the early 1970s, just as prostate science, although for the better, has grown since my treatment 20 years ago.
A friend asked yesterday about my fire experience while we talked about the big New Mexico fires this year. I told her that what I dealt with and saw wildfire-wise 50 years ago are nothing like the mind-boggling conditions and fire behavior we see today.
I saw some big fires in eastern and southern California. We were just as wary then of canyons and wind and dry conditions — and California fire seasons even then were long — but my thoughts back then focused mostly on wishing for bulldozers, fire camp steaks and something cool to drink. We were more aware of water, poison oak, slurry soakings, stump holes, widow-makers, paper sleeping bags and the quality of sack lunches dropped from helicopters than climate change.
I was just a CDF grunt but I saw nothing like the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico that burned nearly an acre a second in the Jemez mountains in 2011 or the unstoppable Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak that has burned more than 40 miles, south to north, in the Sangre de Cristo mountains this year. I don’t know that I ever was part of anything as big as the 3,000-person army fighting the Sangre de Cristos fire for the past two months.
We were a 20-man handcrew, cutting line with double-bitted axes, brush hooks, Pulaskis, McCleods and shovels. On web belts, we carried Army surplus, one-quart canteens and files for sharpening our tools. Our always overloaded swamper, in addition to a fire shovel and his own personal gear, carried a little extra water in one-gallon, blanket-covered canteens, sharpening tools and a big, campfire coffee pot strapped to his pack.
Except when we were able to return to a fire camp after a 12-hour shift, we were usually so isolated it was hard to imagine the bigger picture. We were heads-down, swinging tools, squinting through cheap goggles and breathing through wetted bandannas, focusing on our own little horizons of flame and blackened ground.
So, as I keep aging out here in the high desert, I am increasingly wary of offering advice, though I am still trusted by at least one friend. Cowboy has been sticking especially close since the thirsty snake excitement earlier today.
After my post above, I learned that my next door neighbor might have had a visit yesterday from the same shade and water seeking critter or more likely a sibling or cousin. She took this photo apparently a few minutes before or after developments at my place.