My overall landscaping strategy for my back yard is to allow any plant that decides to live there, live there. This means that parts of it have that “this must be an abandoned building” look. There are a variety of yaupon hollies (including one that we, laughably, paid to have planted), a large mulberry tree, a flourishing pittosporum bush, a poplar scion from a tree next door, and all sorts of other things. There’s also a raised garden with some rose bushes gone wild enough to dabble the imagery of any scene from a Brontë novel. It’s been that way for years. It looks both terrible and beautiful at the same time. The weird gnarled hollies bloom in the spring, and they’re quite pretty. The blossoms ripen into clusters of bright red berries, and they’re nice too. The mulberry makes an awful mess in the spring but it attracts mockingbirds (and probably rats) and my kids make purple mush out of the berries in a long series of annual rituals.
Of course, a downside of maintaining a vacant lot in my backyard is that it appeals to members of Kingdom Animalia as well. A wild (or feral) rabbit this year delivered a litter of kits in a superbly-hidden nest under a 1-foot-tall rose mallow plant in a large gravel pit. A small plastic beach ball was the key to secrecy. It took about 3 minutes for my daughter and my rat terrier to find the nest of course, with the ultimate result – after 10 long, long days of bewilderment on the part of the poor rat terrier, restricted from the yard over that time until the kits became at least basically motile – being a large number of new rabbit stamps on the dog’s kill list. (I like rabbits just fine, but if I’m housing and feeding a rat terrier it makes no sense to disallow it from ridding the yard of what it considers “vermin”, as that’s basically the only thing it lives for. It’s pretty bad at hunting, so baby rabbits – who apparently react to a dog in the yard by standing still – are great prey for this animal.)
Back to yard maintenance. A thing I don’t do – though for a short time I tried – is maintain my own lawn. I’d much prefer to have no lawn at all, which is to say that I’d like to have a full-blown impassable Hill Country thicket outside the back door, with (possibly) a couple of semi-maintained paths hacked through for access to some planned areas like the butterfly garden and the herb patches. That would probably bring down the Neighborhood Association storm troopers, however, so we’ve still got grass and we keep it alive. Thus we pay the cheapest, least-competent lawn service in existence to mow the lawn. They come once a week, or once every two weeks, or basically whenever they decide to.
Last week, during the lawn maintenance process, one of the lawn men knocked on the back door with a look of alarm. Elaine answered, and over the noise of his idling weed whacker he told her that he’d just seen a rattlesnake slithering over the rock wall into the middle rose (Brontë) thicket. She pushed him for details, as we’ve learned that lots of people mistake (harmless) rat snakes for rattlesnakes, but the guy said that he’d seen the rattles on the tail.
Well living in this goofy neighborhood, one has to imagine that pretty much anything that might live in the greenbelt around the development has probably strayed into every single backyard at one time or another. The fences are all old and rotting, so there’s nothing but the variously-demented pet dogs to keep vermin out. I’ve seen raccoons and opossums and rat snakes and rats and (of course) squirrels, and I’m sure that ring-tails and foxes are around. I’ve seen armadillo evidence (little holes where they dig for grubs). Oh, and the rabbits of course. Thus the idea that a rattlesnake would pass through seemed totally believable, but we figured that nobody’s backyard – especially ones with yapping idiot dogs and loud kids – would be much of a home for a rattlesnake.
That night, accompanying said idiot dog out for her evening vermin hunt, I was musing to myself that the noise from all the arboreal cicadas was so loud that it probably would be impossible to hear a rattlesnake rattling. I watched the dog sniff along the fence line heading for another raised “garden” in the corner, itself filled with a holly, some volunteer red oaks, random bushes, vines, and other unidentified vegetation. I couldn’t see it at all in the dark. As the dog moved into complete shadow, and as I thought about the noise of all those bugs, Gypsy suddenly jumped back with a “yip” and gave a couple more barks. Concurrently, I heard a very distinct and robust rattle coming from somewhere smack in the middle of the shadows.
I know I’ve probably heard rattlesnakes rattle at reptile shows or whatever, and of course I can’t be positive that that’s what I heard, but it wasn’t a bug or a bird and it was coming from low along the ground (or maybe the garden), and it sure as heck sounded like a rattlesnake. It was very assertive; really, I thought, a pretty useful thing to have as an animal. The dog, thankfully, didn’t think the snake looked like a squirrel, so when I demanded that it go inside immediately it ran up the deck steps right away.
So with a rattlesnake more-or-less definitely hanging around, what do we do? Once again, there’s only one answer: we call Amazon Rodent & Wildlife Control to secure the services of intrepid zoologist Rio Tenango. Of course, in Austin calls for tiger removal are probably pretty rare, but surely rattlesnake removal is a close second. We call and are told that they can treat our yard/house with a repellent mixture that should keep all but the dumbest snakes away. Elaine booked a house call. She asked if I thought we might be buying “snake oil.” Well, in a backwards sort of way, yes.
The Amazon team showed up outfitted with anti-pointy-teeth leggings and heavy boots. Rio got to work going through just about every square foot of vegetation looking for the snake, while his trusty assistant/spouse (I think? sorry if I’m wrong Rio) mixed up the anti-snake powder. I won’t divulge the recipe because you really need to see these people apply it to get the whole Tao of snake-repelling.
So our house is now radiating snake terror waves in all directions. I never really minded the non-venomous snakes like rat snakes, but honestly I don’t think we ever had any permanent residents, and at the rate they eat rats it wouldn’t really ever make a dent in the rat population when it swells up from time to time.