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July 9, 2009

This Wonderful Life: I call her 'Tina' for short

Every year, the snake returns to the front garden, reminding me of my ambivalent relationship with the great outdoors.

At least, I assume it’s the same snake. I’m not quite sure of a snake’s average lifespan, but I know that I’ve been seeing a progressively larger snake every summer for three years.

It is a garter snake, I think. I tried looking up species of New York snakes, but the photos and descriptions made me feel like I was about to shed my own skin, so I closed the browser. Assuming it’s the same snake, let’s call her Serpentina, she has grown to a healthy length of 18 inches or so. She is greyish brown with yellowish stripes running the length of her, close to the ground. In the mornings or on days when the garden is particularly cool and wet, Serpentina likes to make her way out onto the stone walkway, where she waits to scare the beejeziss out of me when I take out the dogs or walk to my car.

Okay, I know she is not trying to frighten me. I know she is trying to get herself all warm and dry.

And I know that I am far more frightening to her than she is to me. I know this because she slithers back into the garden the instant she sees me coming.

The problem is, she usually sees me before I see her. I see her when she makes that last-ditch effort to avoid being stepped on, and I scream — the very same scream I scream when a cow looks in my dining room window.

It’s not dignified.

I love the outdoors. I love the garden overflowing with lilies and Queen Anne’s lace and dotted with wild strawberries. I love that it’s possible to walk barefoot in the yard, something you could never do in my Southern hometown, unless you wanted to shred your feet to ribbons on sand spurs. I love the hillsides and sunsets and moonlight pouring over the surface of the lake. I can think of almost nothing so splendid and breathtaking as the landscape that surrounds us.

But deep in my heart, I know that I am less like Thoreau and more like Eva Gabor’s Lisa Douglas on ``Green Acres.’’ I understand the romance of retreating to Walden and living in harmony with the natural world. But the natural world is just so startling.

Reach into the garden for a strawberry, and a snail might decide to hitchhike on your hand. Pad barefoot through the warm grass, but look out for a rain of tent caterpillars from above.

Nature inspires and soothes, but it also creeps up behind you and says, ``Boo!’’ Or it slithers along your sidewalk and says, ``Don’t mind me — I’ll just be in your garden giving birth to live young.’’

Elizabeth Trever Buchinger wonders if there’s a merit badge for shrieking. You can connect with her at