My phone pings as I’m walking between patients. During the day, it’s usually someone asking about discharge planning for one of my patients or a new admission. I open the phone and am pleased to see a message from Joneen, until I see the accompanying photo, that is. It seems we have a 4-foot-long visitor in a basement light fixture. She’s exiting said basement until I get home.

Let me say up front that my bride isn’t one to start screaming and go weak kneed at the sight of a snake. For non-poisonous types we’ve always practiced live and let live and enjoy having the critters around as long as they keep a respectable distance. Knowing she has one inhabiting the dropped ceiling above her head while she does laundry, though, may strain her benevolence.

When I get home she has her car loaded with some stuff we’re donating to a yard sale. The snake has vacated the light fixture. She goes through all of the clothes to make sure it’s not hiding there, then takes off to deliver the stuff.

“You’re the great outdoorsman in the family. Deal with it.”

I try to lower expectations but tell her I’ll give it a shot. I go to the garage and get the heaviest pair of gloves I can find. Once in the basement I don my headlamp and carefully lift a ceiling tile. It doesn’t feel overly heavy so I’m optimistic I won’t have a face full of rat snake. I poke my head into the space above the ceiling and look around. I scan for several minutes and see nothing but then find the snake resting quietly between and air duct and the outside wall. It’s too far away to make a grab so I replace the tile, and move the stool closer. I lift another tile and have a peek. The snake is fully extended and seems to be making a run for it. Its closer to a 5 footer. Before I can make a grab, the critter reverses course and disappears into the wall insulation. Try as I might I can’t see any part of the snake and I’m not about to go tearing out insulation trying to find it. Snake 1-Dale 0.

When Joneen returns she’s disappointed at my failure. “I doubt I’ll be able to catch it. I guess I could shoot it with the .22 if I can catch it someplace where the bullet will go into the cinderblocks and not put a hole in something important.”

“That’s what you’ll have to do.”

“Let’s think about this. We haven’t caught a mouse in over three months when we used to get a couple each week. I’m betting the thing has been down there for months and we didn’t know it. It’s probably taken care of our mouse problem.” I go on to tell her how black snakes aren’t aggressive and make it less likely we’ll have copperheads around and how they help control a pests like mice. They’ll clean out a bird nest once in a while but, still, the benefits outweigh the negatives. She’s a master naturalist and of course knows all of this but if I keep talking, maybe it will keep me out of the snake hunting business.

“What if IT is a SHE? We’ll have baby snakes everywhere.”

So here’s a little secret that goes under the heading of “what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her”...the snakes have been there for quite a while. I get up in the ceiling twice a year to change the duct system from winter to summer mode (and vice versa). Although I’ve never seen a live snake, I’ve been seeing shed skins for years. Somehow I just forgot to mention that to Joneen. Unfortunately our live-in pest control service made a tactical error. Now she DOES know.

So I tell her I’ll keep looking but I don’t look too hard. As I write this, it’s been over a month without another sighting. I suspect the snake took up residence for the winter and now that warm weather is here, its moved outside to feast on baby birds. I’ll need to plug some cracks before the snow flies again.

I won’t say Joneen is warming to the idea since she’s keeping the basement as frigid as possible to encourage that out-migration and she does a careful survey before stepping off the last step. Still her insistence on deadly force has softened and she’s even given our guest a name.

So, Blackie, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll be on your best behavior (i.e. invisible) for the next few months. If this comes down to a contest between the love of my life and you, you’ll lose, big time. Let’s try to make sure it doesn’t come to that. OK?

Dale and Joneen Sargent are stewards of a tract of mountain land, Demeter, in Bland County. Dale can be reached at

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