Some of the best experiences during a field season don’t have anything to do with your study species, your field site, or your research project. Given the nature of fieldwork, you tend to stumble across things that – although they aren’t what you’re looking for – are still super cool.
Let me set the scene for you.
It’s a cool, wet morning in early May. Dew droplets cover the grass like a green sky filled with twinkling stars. The old field van slides across the lawn, little leopard frogs jumping every which way to escape the wrath of its wheels and the blue jays fly above, the early morning rays accentuating their blue, blue wings. We pull up to the “white house” – an unfinished two story (white) home used for storage of field equipment – which glistens in the morning sun. I unlock the door and wave my hand all around the frame (checking for spiders, of course) before I step up and onto the concrete floor. I make a quick right turn and head past the exposed beams and piles of old torn up insulation and into the garage to start the ATV. John stays in the doorway, and I assume this is to admire the eeriness of this particular place. It really is like nothing else.
“Amanda…come look at this” John says. I walk back out and John points under the stairs.
There are a couple of holes in the foundation under the front door and the morning sun illuminates something I was not expecting. Under the stairs is the biggest black rat snake I have ever seen. Scratch that – the biggest snake I have ever seen in the wild, period. She stares at us from beneath the stairs. She is probably about the same girth as a small peanut butter jar and we can only see the first foot of her, as she is hidden by the piles of scrap wood and metal that are stored under the stairs.
I’ve always known that snakes lived in this house, or at least visited this house. There are always holes in the insulation where they bury themselves to keep warm, and you can often see skins in various corners of the empty rooms. There are also many points of entry in little broken corners in the walls or garage door.
Our quiet admiration doesn’t seem like a nuisance to this snake at all. She has somewhere she needs to be and we are not going to get in her way. She slithers out slowly from her hiding place, the first three feet of her wrap around the first step of the stairs, and up she goes, slowly but surely. Her skin sounds like sand paper rubbing against the grainy wooden steps. Her body fits like a glove against each step as she goes up all 12, covering sometimes up to 6 steps at a time. She never looks back at us, almost as if she’s seen us there many times before and knows we won’t interrupt her.
John and I stand in the dimly lit house, dead silent, until the last bit of her almost 6.5 foot long body climbs the final stair and disappears upstairs.
It’s not long before we hear something else. Three more black rat snakes emerge from the corner of the far left room, and begin making their way towards the stairs. None are as magnificent as she is in size, but all just as beautiful. They congregate under the stairs – but these guys aren’t as bold. We figure we’ll give them their space and with a lot of hesitation, decide to get the day’s work underway.
We return from setting up my experiment and need to put our supplies back into the house, but we can’t stop thinking about them. What are they doing upstairs? We’ve never even looked upstairs before (because it’s seriously creepy in there) but we can’t resist. As we get high enough, we start to see the piles of insulation, and there she is, just standing guard at the top of the stairs, staring at us with her dark, but bright and mysterious eyes.
We decide (maybe a little bit out of fear, but I’d like to think more out of respect) to let the snakes be. We just have to accept that we’re sharing our field house with some unexpected but magnificent visitors.
Since then, we’ve seen them occasionally, more so now that autumn is upon us. Every time we see them, we quietly admire each other and head off on our own ways. There’s almost something peaceful about knowing that they’re there. This old abandoned field house, which for a long time could be described as a cold, damp, dark place, is suddenly filled with life, warmth, and more eyes looking out for us than we can count.