The Dead Snake: A Teachable Moment

The morning brought a chill to the house for the first time this season. I dug my slippers out from the back of the closet and went down the stairs to find the kids playing quietly on the living room rug. I set their breakfast on the table, and perched myself at the kitchen island, hoping to drink my coffee in peace.

Through the window, I noticed the leaves just starting to turn into hues of red and yellow. The dying season was beginning its farewell, and all I could think of were the cold, monotone months ahead. Suddenly, my golden opportunity to lounge, felt like a lost opportunity to get outside. I downed my coffee, packed some binoculars and announced to the kids that we were going on a walk.

Despite their protests, once they were bundled in fleece they voluntarily ran out into the fresh air. We each assumed our duties: my three-year-old son would lead, my four-year-old daughter would narrate, and I would get our pack down the dirt road unscathed. As inviting as country roads may seem, ours is windy, lacks a sidewalk and is frequented by speedy SUVs and pick-up trucks, so when we finally made it to the turn off, I could relax. I pulled out the binoculars, hoping to see a blue jay or a woodpecker or –

“A snake!” There, coiled between my son’s feet, lay the body of our first discovery, embedded into the surface of the road.

“Don’t touch it! I think… um…”

“It’s dead.” said my daughter.

“Yeah, it’s dead.” said my son.

Both stood over the garter snake with their mouths gaping.

“OKAY! Let’s look for those birds!” My zest for ornithology grew exponentially.

“But mommy, how did it die?”

“Uh, it looks like it was run over by a car.”

“Poor snake.” said my daughter.

“Yeah, poor snake.” said my son.

“C’mon guys. What else can we find?” I was hoping whatever it was would be a little more lively. The two moped behind me still stuck on the snake, so I pointed to an opening in a thicket.

“Up here’s a secret path!”

“A secret path?” They ran ahead, forgetting about the garter. Progress, I thought, but as we came out onto our neighbors’ meadow they were disappointed.

“Mommy, this isn’t a secret path.” my daughter sulked.

“Yeah.” my son sulked further.

Thinking fast, I pointed to the top of a wildflower cluster. ”What’s that?”

“Bumble bees!”

The kids’ distractibility was now working in my favor. We continued in this fashion, discovering monarchs, the detritus of fallen trees, dissecting milkweed pods and enjoying the autumn sun. Then, out of nowhere, my daughter said in a voice as chipper as if planning her princess birthday party:

“Let’s carry the dead snake back to our house and bury it!”

I paused in order to process my first thought: over my dead body. But watching her skip enthusiastically back to the road, I suppressed my impulse to roll over her budding curiosities on death. What harm would it really do? I mustered up my courage, “Great idea, honey. But you can’t carry it with your hands.”

I figured out how to get the snake on a stick without further trauma to its body or to myself. It wasn’t all too different from twirling up a noodle onto a fork, although the similarity did make me nauseas. Then I passed the stick to the eager hands of my daughter with instructions to keep her arm extended and away from her brother’s head. With an affirmative nod, she led the way back down the road, more cautiously than before.

Then came her next observation, “Mommy, snakes smell.”

My son elaborated, “Snakes smell yucky!”

My fears were confirmed. The stench enveloping us was not that of decaying maple leaves. Wanting at this point to throw the stick into the woods, I held my nose, took a deep breath and explained, “Yes, the snake does smell now that it’s dead, but snakes don’t smell when they’re alive – I don’t think.”

They probed further, remembering the songbirds that met their fate on our sliding glass door in the spring.

“How come they didn’t smell?”

“Yeah, how come?”

Then with vague scientific accuracy I explained the timeline of decomposition. Granted, the nature walk had taken an unexpected turn but ironically the half-mile home proved to be pleasant. Our kid-appropriate talk on dying meandered into a lively discussion about our compost pile. They listed the different food scraps that would breakdown and help plants grow in our garden, come spring. All the while, the kids were attentive to the subject matter, careful with the snake, and by the final stretch up the driveway, were planning out a proper burial.

Back home, we found a clearing between some trees where we began to dig. I gently slide the snake into its resting place and they covered the body with soil. Then I waited as they collected pine needles and rocks to adorn the grave but my son soon lost interest and went onto new endeavors, likely squishing bugs with the bottom of his shoe.

Just off from our burial site I noticed autumn’s effects on my waning garden. The only vibrancy left were dots of orange marigolds that had dutifully repelled garden pests all summer. Their job was done and they needed a final purpose, so I asked my daughter to pick as many as she could. We piled the fiery blossoms onto the burial mound and finished it off with a crown of sticks. Then she began the eulogy.

“Thank you snake. Thank you for everything. We love you. Now you can go to snake heaven.”

She looked to me and less eloquently I expressed thanks to the snake for its service to the ecosystem. Intuitively, my daughter lifted her hands to the sky in a gesture of offering, and then folded them back upon her lap. We sat there for a moment… peacefully. And I did actually feel thankful, mostly for not having said no to the whole bury-a-dead-snake thing. It was, after all, one of the more purposeful outings I’d had with my kids all season.

Then, as if having figured something out, my daughter’s eyes widened, “There are worms under there, moving in the dirt.”

“That’s right. They’re helping the snake become part of the earth again.”

She rolled her eyes. “I already know that, mom.”

Then my four-going-on-fourteen-year-old got up and joined her little brother, who was collecting the first of the fall’s dead leaves.

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