I KNEW IT WAS THERE BEFORE I SAW

it. As thick as a rope, the snake lay beneath a pile of dry grass clippings. I reached for my spade, aimed for the head and struck.

And immediately the recriminations started. Was the snake poisonous? Could it have hurt me? Did I really have to kill it? The farm I work weekends in rural Maryland is a Garden of Eden, but killing that snake ruined my day. My stomach was churning and I couldn't eat lunch.

Once I got back to D.C., word of the killing spread through my office and neighborhood. A friend at work said that the snake's diamond pattern suggested a copperhead. "With copperheads, it's either you or them," he said. "You have children. You don't fool around with a copperhead."

One neighbor stopped me on the street and told me how brave I was. Another asked if I might go on a crusade and eliminate snakes altogether from my farm. I liked the thought of that. Urban dweller during the week; the St. Patrick of Montgomery County on weekends. Respect stuck to me like a burr.

The following weekend, I decided to give the serpentine population a break and stayed in the city to do some weeding in my garden. As I bent over one stubborn root, I had a vague, uncomfortable feeling that I was being watched. I turned around and there, coiled atop a gooseberry bush, was a five-foot snake staring me dead in the eye. ::