Days of the Garter

Honi soit qui mal y pense.
I offer warm accolades to all readers who can (a) translate this sentence accurately, (b) provide its historical background, factual and legendary, and (c) relate it to the title of this blog.

Of late we’ve had some real fall weather, as it is understood in this climate. Nighttime temperatures have dipped into the 30s and even upper 20s, bringing the first frosts, though not killing freezes yet. The neighbors’ mysterious oriental vine (their ancestral home is Tibet) is now limp and ruined, hanging slackly from its elaborate support structure of string and wood. But our own potted geraniums, tucked snugly against the house on the front stoop, are still thriving, bringing forth a resurgent growth of red blossoms. Yet we know their days are numbered, perhaps in single digits.

Daytime temperatures soar into the sixties to mid-seventies, a full 40-degree jump, with a few notable exceptions. We attended Ben’s baseball game on late Monday afternoon, and thought we were going to get frostbite in the nippy upper-40s breeze as sunset descended on the diamond. The chill made us think that if they had only flooded it they might have been able to play hockey.

With the sun setting ominously early, and the dawn creeping in ever later, there’s a basically chilly affect even if the sun warms up for a few hours and makes us all feel good. The cats seek out those sunny squares of warm light on the carpets, squirrels keep their metabolism up by squirreling away nuts for the winter, people find the sunny benches in the parks and along the bike trails, the same ones they had avoided all summer as they sought respite from the blazing heat. Now any bit of warmth is good.


Eastern Garter Snake

And so the season is reflected on the bike trail. The tarmac warms up in the middle of the day. Where the trail courses close to Piney Branch and Difficult Run on the way from Vienna to Hunter Mill Road, the creatures living in the woods and wetlands adjacent to the trail are drawn to its warmth. While the cool air lurks in the lowlands and hollows, the W&OD becomes an oasis of blissful heat. Thus it was that yesterday I saw not one, not two, but three snakes in separate places along the trail. As I encountered them, they were moving in sinuous frenzy to escape the imagined menace of my 15 m.p.h. approach. But surely they had been stretched out on the asphalt, every bit of their cold-blooded reptilian being enjoying the autumnal solar heating.

I am pretty sure they were all garter snakes, because they had that dark green and yellow longitudinal striping. One of them might have been a queen snake. Two of them were big, healthy specimens in the vicinity of 20” long (give or take 3 or 4 inches), the other maybe more in the 14” range. My powers of observation are only approximate as I am concerned at these moments with not harming the snakes, keeping my bike on course, and only then garnering a more precise observation of the critter itself.

One thing I love about cycling is the constant reminder of the ongoing presence of wildness around us. I am grateful for the protection of that wildness provided by creeks and their flood plains, and by these old rail trails and their right-of-ways. They all help assure that many creatures can coexist alongside 1,140,000 suburbanite human beings who inhabit Fairfax County.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2015.

4 thoughts on “Days of the Garter

  1. Thank you for your beautiful writing and images. Three snakes, oh my! I’m glad to think of you riding again. Cheers!

  2. Update: Today at my turnaround point I ushered another garter snake back into the grass. This little guy was an immature one, about 10″ long. He preferred to stay on the asphalt, but I convinced him with a couple of gentle pushes.

  3. Well, I think we also have a responsibility in protecting the wilderness. That’s why I love cycling. I think it helps us in preserving nature, and those that live in it, snakes and all.

    • I’m down with that. In protecting it we live out the values of kinship among all living beings, and compensate a little bit for the crass exploitation of wilderness that has too often been the inclination of humans.

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