It felt a bit like a time warp when I first found out. I couldn’t believe how history was repeating itself in my own flesh and bones. What did it all mean? I was supposed to finish this two year project on this little island in Lake Erie and then head to Africa for my PhD. How was this progress?
It’s the story of a strange parallel convergence of two remarkably similar land stewards inhabiting the same place, three quarters of a century apart.
I had become known as “Snakeman.” I just never liked that moniker. I mean, it was clear that I had two legs and two arms. Totally unfitting.
One day, that at first seemed fairly usual for these pretty strange days of sleuthing for reptiles, I suffered a big loss. I was tracking one of 15 endangered snakes in which we had implanted radio-transmitters. This meant I could relocate an animal each day with my antenna and radio-receiver in order to track its movement and observe its ecology. It was like playing a cheating game of hide and seek.
The art form of the task was to hone in so silently, as though you were a snake in the grass yourself. In stealth mode, you could see a whole world unfolding the way it might happen if you weren’t there (though quantum physics would say otherwise – the observer always impacts the observed). That magic revealed wild dramas, unforgettable serpentine poignancies, and sheer natural delights that will very likely never again be seen by human eyes.
Animal 172.343 was extremely hard to find on this one terribly hot, humid, July day. In spite of dialing in the individual frequency, the trademark ‘beeping’ of the receiver was absent. She (plus her transmitter & the data from following her) was worth thousands of dollars.
My efforts to rectify this included a bicycle ride for more than 3 hours on tiny, dusty dirt roads trying to pick up a signal. Nothing. I dismounted the bicycle. I bushwhacked by foot through thick, dense shrubs, laden with chiggers, while trying to swat deerflies circling around my head.
I found myself moving quickly through forests and savannas, all in unfamiliar territory. She was not there. Not anywhere. She had either gone out of range or she had been carried off by a larger predator.
As bad as the conditions of low comfort were throughout these sweaty endeavours, the smile button on my face was continually in the “On” position.
“How could someone be so lucky to do this work?” I would ask myself. What an amazing stepping stone this island project was…soon I’d be off to Africa, I often thought.
I had no idea where I was and I was tempted to keep trekking. But I had just traveled what must have been close to a marathon’s length combined on my bicycle and by foot. With my fuel reserves down low, I needed to eat. There was no way I was going to sit down on the village of chiggers (tiny biting mites) who would in turn, have me for lunch. I was just about to climb a tree when down at my feet was the answer; a place to perch.
I stumbled across an old foundation. It was solid. The dilapidated building that lay on the foundation still had the remnants of two stories with part of the walls and roof intact. The structure sat completely in place, in the overgrown savanna on the edge of a forest.
Coming across the crumbled groundwork of yesteryear’s heavy, manual labours has always been a wonder to me. Who lived here? What were they like? Why did they abandon everything? Does anyone know about this place?
I climbed up to the second floor and sat inside what I henceforth referred to as the tiny cabin. I immediately felt a familiar homelike presence. In spite of the cob webs, bat guano, and raccoon feces, the odd sense of comfort continued to fill me. And yet the place seemed so far away from anything and I thought, “Who in the world would live out here in the middle of nowhere?” No answers. Until one day…
Not long after this incident, I met a woman. We got married on the island. The water, rocks, plants and lifestyle had grasped us tightly with their subtle yet, tenacious tendrils. We searched to buy a place on the island.
A few months later, we bought a 56-acre farm property for the price of a nice new car (some guy was about foreclose due to back-taxes). It had a bush, a way at the back, past the 45 acres of open farmland. I hadn’t yet fully explored the bush.
My dreams of further formal education and Africa faded for a new framework; staying on a tiny island. Why not settle? Live off the grid, off the land, cultivate care for life in all its forms of community in one spot? Could this be it?
Sure enough, when we finally explored the far end of the property during a casual walk, guess what we found.
Yes, it was the tiny cabin.
My own words repeated in my mind, “Who in the world would live out here in the middle of nowhere?” I guess I would, I said out loud.
The next day, one of the neighbours to the north popped by for a visit. He looked like he had been farming in the sun for a hundred years and IT turns out, he almost had been. He wore horned rim glasses, a thick mop of greasy white hair and a voice so deep and rough you would think he had just smoked two packs of cigarettes on his five minute drive over. His words were solidly of a local dialect. This suite of unique grammatical rules, off the wall expressions, and the sound accent seemed to have evolved independently on the island, much like Darwin’s Finches had in the Galapagos.
“You might wunna hear some of thuh history of yer land, Bay-an,” he said with a big smile across his leathery, wrinkled face. I nodded. He began.
“It wuz thuh late teens. Maybe early 20s. Uh feller by thuh name a Dee Bell owned yer land. A gal come over’ the island much in thuh way yew hed. She come here from thuh government to study snakes. Crazy shet like yew, ya know?”
He continued, “It wadn’t those ugly Blue Racers, it was those uglier ones that swim in the wader. Them endangered wader snakes. Th’ suckers I usually…well, I shewn’t tell yews what I’s dew weth them.”
“So about 75 years ago a snake researcher came here?” I said in disbelief.
“She din’t just come here, Bay-an. She fell in love with th’island, fell in love with Dee Bell and stayd on this land till the end of her deys. He died in WWII and she died not long after that.”
I stood silent for a bit. That’s what I had just done. I rushed in, was ready to rush out and got pulled into the romantic vortex of this land surrounded by water.
The old man continued, “Do you know what her name was?”
“No,” I replied.
“Snakelady!” He laughed out loud while coughing on what I perceived were the fictitious cigarettes I had imagined earlier.
He continued, “Yep, thuh Dee Bells really brought life to th’land. And they farmed it.”
“So a woman called Snakelady lived here 75 years ago and now a dude called Snakeman is moving in,” I said to him to feed the ornery smile on his face.
“Yep. Perty much sums it up,” he replied while telling me I better be good to the farmland.
Over the next 12 years I lived there.
I was fortunate to assemble a great team of dedicated colleagues. We opened an off-the-grid, outdoor centre for conservation, and worked hard and long hours, with the often nasty opposition of a few locals who tried to block our every step forward.
We hosted thousands of students, teaching about and engaging them in habitat restoration, wildlife research, and living lightly on the Earth.
We hosted a former Prime Minister of Canada, world class authors, movie makers from Hollywood, innovative and celebrated researchers, musicians, artists, astronomers, architects, and many other enlightened souls.
Everyone had a piece of the enchanted pie to offer, chipping into the seldom honed magic; the magic that is to go back to the wisdom of times gone by, to benefit the precious present.
Who in the world was the Snakelady? Did she plan on staying on the island? Probably not more than a once Africa-bound grad student, later dubbed Snakeman.
It feels more than truthful to say that magic indeed was brought back to an old foundation. Or just maybe, the old foundation brought back magic that had been lost in the speed of present day living?
This, was indeed progress.
Adapted from forthcoming book, “Right Action Man – Unblocked, Uncovered, Rediscovered,” by Ben Porchuk. From Chapter entitled, The Man Who Couldn’t Read the Writing on the Wall Because the Elephant in the Room Was Too Big (see http://www.rightactionman.com for more info).
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