Earlier last month I lifted my rowboat into the van, drove out to a town landing in East Orleans, and shoved off into the waters of Little Pleasant Bay. It was a beautiful, sunny day, a warm, early spring day, with a brisk southwest wind coming in with the tide. The low islands of the bay lay spread out like basking dinosaurs feeding on the bordering salt marshes. I landed on Pochet Island, the largest of the bay islands, and climbed up its high, marsh-skirted bluffs forested with undulating banks of wavy-topped junipers.
I walked southwest down a path through a sumac meadow, still barren and leafless, and at a small clearing at a sharp bend in the path, the dry grass to my left hissed and slithered. I stopped short and saw flashes of gray quicksilver sliding and flowing away from me, as if in a dozen separate pieces. They stopped in a second or two, but when I made a step into the grass they came alive again, hissing electrically. Then I caught sight of them: two black racers –a pair of long, dark, entwined bodies -that had presumably been warming themselves in the sun.
Black racers are hard to miss. They are the largest and most widely-distributed snake on the Cape and Islands. They can grow up to six feet in length and have been found virtually everywhere except on Nantucket, most of the Elizabeth Islands, and most of the islands in Pleasant Bay – except here on Pochet. The motion of a snake through grass is deceptive. The body appears to swerve from side to side, but actually it follows strictly the track laid down by its hidden head. It gives the odd illusion of passive motion, like water flowing along a curved incline.
The two snakes slithered ahead of me in the grass for several yards before one of them stopped, turned, and, true to its name, raced speedily towards me. I backed up instinctively onto the path, though, like all native Cape reptiles, the black racer is not poisonous. Still, according to the biologist James D. Lazell, Jr., these snakes “can bite hard and bloody if you give them a chance." I watched as its wedge-shaped head emerged cautiously from the heavy grass into a small cleared space a few feet in. I can’t explain it, but I had the strong conviction that this was a female I was looking at, and the other one a male, though black racers supposedly only pair up in the late summer and fall, when they mate. Her head and neck were more of a dark dull silver gray than truly black, and I guessed that her body was at least four feet in length.
She poked her head exploratorily where I had stepped a moment before, tasting my presence with her tongue. Then she slowly moved off, back towards the spot where I had first seen them. Then I saw what she had been heading for: a small whorl of grass that hid a hole about an inch in diameter. With no sign of haste, she thrust her head into its dark entrance and once again, resuming the motion of passive flow, allowed the earth to suck her in like a strand of spaghetti. I tried to locate the other snake, but he had presumably found another hole to enter. They were both somewhere beneath my feet now, under the dark door of the warming earth.