Sure, Nature, But Not Too Much Nature, Please: On Snakes, Toads, Birds and Poets

categories: Cocktail Hour



It was a wild weekend here.  The tides have been strangely high all week, flooding through our fence, and I paddled the kayak from our yard to Masonboro Island, where the yucca are blooming with yellow-white leaves that look strangely edible.

On Saturday morning I went for a walk with my wife Nina and daughter Hadley in Carolina Beach State Park.  Last year, around this time of year, I would walk there every day and more than once saw big fat copperheads lying across the trail. Our yellow lab would jog obliviously over them, and I would tip-toe carefully around. But now we had Hadley, who had just turned eight, with us, and all spring she had been pretending to be a dog when we hiked these tails, which meant running far ahead of us, out of sight (though we could hear her barking.)  I hadn’t wanted to tell Hadley that she shared her favorite trails with giant snakes, but now it was that time of year when they would be sunning on the paths again and there was no getting around it.

“I need to tell you something,” I began.  I described the snakes and told her they would not bite her if we left them alone, but that she had to watch where she put her feet as she ran or walked.

She was deeply upset by this new information.

“You ruined the trail for me,” was her first response.  And soon: “I never want to come here again.” For the next twenty minutes she refused to walk ahead, moping behind us.  But she is a quick recoverer. Soon we got to the Cape Fear River, and started throwing sticks for the two dogs (our yellow lab Missy and a friend’s lab Coltrane) and watching them race through the water.

By the time we were headed back to the car she was fully recovered, running ahead and barking, part of the three dog pack.  She travels about twice as far as we do when we walk the trail, and burns three times as many calories, and at some point she ended up ten feet behind us, but not moping this time.

“A snake!” she yelled.

I thought she was joking of course.  As she ran ahead toward her mother, I went back to where she had just been standing, a spot on the narrow trail that we all, humans and dogs had just tramped over. And there it was, as if magically conjured. A big fat copperhead, easily four feet long, its beautiful golden orange mosaic pattern allowing it to blend in with last year’s leaves. We all watched as it slowly slithered off the trail into the woods.

I asked Hadley how she had seen it when the rest of us had walked right by.

“I was watching very carefully where I put my feet,” she said, and then demonstrated with an exaggerated foot placement like that of an Indian in an old Western.





* * *


The second nature moment seemed to require a poem.  I am not a poet, and have written maybe two non-comic poems in my life.  Here is number three, which, while it might not do justice to the genre, at least gets the point across:


Southern Toads

My wife was worried they might stay for the season

But the Southern toads just took a day

to bully into town

sing like drunken revelers

leap on each other’s backs

make a musical orgy

out of our crappy little pond out front.


We could have called the cops on them

Their singing was so raucous

We talked of draining the pond (we wouldn’t have)

The noise was deafening.


The next day silence

No drunk toad songs

We looked closely and saw

even stranger:

No toads.

But my wife had done her research (Google’s miracle)

And so we looked closer still

and saw

That the gone toads had left

Their future for us.

Black beaded necklaces

Perfect jewelry store


of eggs.



* * *


I didn’t turn on my computer or phone until around two on the day of the snake. When I did I had messages from two different people about birds that had fallen out of nests, asking for help. While I had no idea what they should do, I was flattered that they had called me, as if they imagined I was going to put on my Osprey Man costume, fly over and save the day. The truth is that a year ago, at almost the same spot we saw the snake, we found a tiny nestling on the ground and, after running all over town trying to find someone to take care of it, were told by a ranger that it happens all the time this time of year and we should just put it back by the nest.  We did this but uneasily.  It didn’t seem like Mom was going to fly down and scoop up her young one. More like we were making a sacrifice at the altar of the local raccoons.  We tried not to think about it too much.  Not every nature story has a happy toad ending.


* * *


So those were the highlights of my weekend. It was great—flushing out of the school term and all the grind of all the editing I’ve been doing—and I feel revived. When I talk to students and to some friends about integrating nature with our lives, they sometimes roll their eyes. But really that’s all I’m talking about.  It seems crazy to me that for many of us something so central, so essential, is relegated to a novelty item or greeted with the equivalent of “Well, I don’t do nature.”

I think of a dinner party that I attended in Cambridge right before Hadley was born. I was serving as a fill-in for one of the Briggs-Copeland lecturers at Harvard, and was teaching classes in environmental writing.  The host of the party was Helen Vendler, the scholar and poetry critic, and the rest of the group was made up of my fellow Briggs-Copeland lecturers. After dinner but before desert, Ms. Vendler, who is a sweet and generous woman despite her reputation with some in the poetry world as power-wielding tyrant, turned to me and asked me who my favorite “nature poet” was.

The enviro guy was being put on the spot, and he said:

“A.R. Ammons.”

Titters of approval, general assent, head nodding.

On the one hand I hadn’t done it to win their favor, but on the other I’m not anti-favor.  Vendlar, pleased with my first answer, asked me my second.

I believe I said “Gary Snyder” but it might have been Mary Oliver or Robinson Jeffers, and, to be honest, any of those names would have met with the same general displeasure.  I had crossed a line.  Sure, nature was okay, but not too much nature please.  Ammons was subtle, showing the complexity of the human mind and the world, but these other folks were too….well…naturey.  I remembered that someone had recently taken Jeffers to task in the New York Times for using the word “beautiful” too often.

I am exaggerating and over-simplifying of course. We had a spirited discussion of how Snyder tried to write from a biocentric point of view, not an anthropocentric one.  We contrasted Jeffers bold, wide-sweeping statements with Ammons’s subtle equivocations.

And I was hardly arguing against Ammons. He was and is my favorite after all, and I was firmly in his uncertain camp.  Like him, I can barely make a definitive statement without immediately questioning it.

But… is just that in other moods, more rare but perhaps loftier, I understand, as Jeffers did, as Snyder and Oliver do, how small a part of our universe are these quibbling, qualifying minds of ours.  In other moods I see that while the poetry of the earth may be created primarily by humans, that poetry remains small if its only subject is human lives.  In other moods I see something larger, something terrifying, something beautiful, like the toad eggs and copperheads, and think that these are things the world needs to see, too, without equivocation or ambivalence.



* * *


Since I included an amateur’s poem in this post, I’d like to end with one from a professional:



by Robinson Jeffers


A little too abstract, a little too wise

It is time to kiss the earth again,

It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,

Let the rich life run to the roots again.

I will go down to the lovely Sur Rivers

And dip my arms in them up to the shoulders.

I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers

In the ocean wind over the river boulders.

I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,

That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky,

The insect clouds that blind our passionate hawks

So they cannot strike, hardly can fly.

Things are the hawk’s food and noble is the mountain,

Oh noble

Pico Blanco, steep sea-wave of marble.


  1. Nina writes:

    The eggs already hatched! Our crappy pond is now filled with hundreds of little black toadpoles! I’m worried it was a premature hatching because of that heavy rain, only a few of them seem to be wiggling around.

  2. michael white writes:

    that part about the “gone toads had left/their future for us . . . ” is really great. I don’t know, in a way all poets are nature poets. The aristocratic Bishop wrote not only the great Sandpiper, but all her travel poems are crisp with the observed detail. Rexroth, Kenyon, both James and Charles Wright, you know, even a city poet like James Schuyler was able to look out a window and capture the atmospherics of a moment with deep feeling.

    • Dave writes:

      That is very generous of you, but I know I aint no poet. That became abundantly clear as I tried to figure out where the line breaks should go and whether or not to capitalize the first words of the lines…….Funny how things that are so instinctive in fiction and non- are not in this strange new world. But I guess that’s the fun of it–the fun of being an amateur.

      No doubt i’ll steal a phrase or two for an essay.

  3. john writes:

    Love the “day of the snake.” My colleague here at Wofford, Chuck Smith, studies copperheads. He puts transmitters in them and follows them around, also has database of dna. He caught the biggest one he’s ever seen in our backyard– 4.5 feet!

    Also liked the piece about the lit party and Vendler and the nature poets. You this sort of thing well. You’re so much better suited for that world than I am– First of all they would have dismissed me because I have a Southern accent (always happens to me in New England). And then I would have said “Rexroth, Snyder, Dickey, Jeffers…” and been dismissed right away a second time for multiple political and social sins. I like Ammons but not as much as these three others, though I quote him (“If anything will level with you water will”) more than any of the others…

    • Dave writes:

      You would have done just fine at the party. Them Harvard folk aint so scary. Just ask Brad Watson……..or Thomas Wolfe.

  4. George de Gramont writes:

    You are evolving into Nature’s Statesman! ( Just finished Bismark ).