Brettschneider birdhouse (Martha Brettschneider/A black rat snake in the Brettschneider family’s cherry tree in Vienna.)
April 27, 2012

On the first really warm day of spring, I glanced out the kitchen window to take in our magnificent cherry tree, whose branches were heavy with cotton-candy blossoms just beginning to lose their grip and drift across the lawn. I did a double take, wondering how that black hose had gotten wrapped around the birdhouse hanging just outside the glass. To my horror, I realized it was no hose but a 5-foot black rat snake, its head plunged inside the birdhouse, looking for a snack.

Then I remembered with relief that the birdhouse had no tenant, and my horror shifted to fascination. Our family has traveled far and wide to experience natural wonders, touring the rain forests of Belize and Costa Rica and Tanzania’s incomparable national parks, relishing those magical moments when some creature stops you in your tracks. You forget to breathe, waiting to see what the wild thing before you will do next.

I called out to my husband and 13-year-old son, and the three of us stood slack-jawed, watching the snake at work. I snapped out of it and ran to the car to dig out the camera bag from under the folding chairs we use for soccer games. The zoom lens — equally suited to my son’s moves on the field that morning as well as the National Geographic drama in my back yard — was still attached.

For the next half-hour, I stood under the tree watching the snake wind through the cherry blossoms, its scales at times catching the sunlight, at other times camouflaged along the length of a branch. The muscular beauty of the thing was riveting. At one point a pink petal rested on its head. I have always had a strong aversion to snakes, but that was nothing less than cute. I understood for the first time why Eve was not repulsed.

A little Google research later that evening confirmed what I already knew — that black rat snakes can be scarily large but are not poisonous. They are harmless to humans if left alone but will bite if provoked (don’t we all). Because their diet includes mice and rats, farmers love having them around. Panicky suburbanites often kill them just for being big.

Heart-stopping wonders are all around us, even in our own back yards, if we only take the time to notice. Turn off the TV, computer and hand-held screens in your life and be astonished by the miracles in our midst. And don’t forget to look up; who knows what else might be lurking in the branches?

More Local Opinions

Stephen Abresch: Who pays for the Height Act?

David Alpert: A second act for the walkable neighborhood

Kesh Ladduwahetty: A tea party budget for D.C.?