Splayed on a rock in September, he can feel summer’s punch draining from the sun. Through thin, naked skin he senses heat evaporating, degree by degree, from the air—and from his body’s loose S.
A week later I see him slide across the gravel path. Now the sun has become, besides his body’s warmer, this garter snake’s compass. He lifts his thumb-sized head skyward, seeking direction toward a remembered destination. En route, he’ll look for landmarks he noted on last year’s trek—this oak stump, that boulder. He’ll flick his red forked tongue to collect the scent that female garters, ahead of him, effuse, assuring him, This is the way. He has to arrive before the temperature drops below freezing for longer than a day. If he doesn’t, his lithe self will freeze stiff as a stick.
He glides along his remembered travel lane for a mile, two miles, intent on a particular hole in the ground. Without any tools for digging, this garter, like all snakes, is at the mercy of other creatures, or the mercy of the earth itself, to open a door to the warmer underworld. He knows one door, one den that can meet his needs in the difficult season ahead. It’s mapped in his mind and in the minds of all the area’s garter snakes. Solitary creatures from the moment of birth, in fall they follow their maps and slither in from every direction—dozens, hundreds, even thousands massing at the best dens. They bask, separately, above ground on warm days, and slip beneath on cold days. On none of those days do they eat. They’re emptying their guts of every particle of food. They must go into their winter confinement clean.
Since mid-November, frost has kept them in their underground cell, a chamber deeper than the four feet the frost will seep in the months to come. Pools of water and thick, humid air keep their skin supple. With no food in them to rot, they’ve stopped all digestion. Digestion burns energy. They’ve positioned themselves where the chamber stays between thirty-seven and thirty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that slows the flow of energy through their bodies and holds them—perfectly poised—between life and death. They are conscious—conscious only to keep themselves as effortless as possible. To drink only when necessary. To move only if a hard winter’s frost forces further descent.
The chill at the knife edge of death sparks a chain of changes in a small gland in the garter snake’s brain. Beyond his knowing, he is being prepared. Then, when the ground above him warms, he’s cued. The season for sparing himself is past. He and the multitude with him swim up through the dark layers of earth and break from the hole, falling onto each other, a writhing ball of snakes, mating. Nearly starved, they obey that more primal survival prod before hurrying off alone to hunt, spending all that they’ve saved, fervent for life to multiply, to abound.
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