Just over the Red River in rural Oklahoma, there is a small brick farmhouse on an acre of land.
For two years, this is where I have been raising my children. The house is surrounded by cattle
and wheat fields, and the nearest human neighbor is a half mile away. In the time I’ve spent on
this wild land, I’ve learned to live with the seasons and the cycles of nature.
My husband’s military career has taken us all over the United States. We’ve only ever
lived in the suburbs, but due to a housing shortage, our family was forced to find somewhere to
live outside of the small city of Wichita Falls, Texas. This change to vast living space and
isolation has been both terrifying and thrilling.
We are exposed to the winds in all their fury. The frigid north wind cuts straight into the joints of
hands and the soft cartilage of noses and ears. The south wind dances and plays, sending my long
hair twirling through the air. In the springtime, north and south winds battle for rulership of the
sky. They bring thunderhead clouds from opposing directions, and when they collide, the furious
winds uproot weak trees, strip shingles from the roof and trim from the eaves. Metal garbage
cans are sent bouncing across the yard, smashing into parked cars, and catching on the
surrounding barbed wire fencing. The currents and clouds interlace, creating visible horizontal
vortices of air. The threat of tornadoes is real. On these magical evenings, I can’t help but stand
outside and take in the drama and majesty. I look straight up to the sky to see raging rivers of
clouds above me. The wind shoves me and threatens my balance, and it is thrilling and
exhilarating to have the sensation of being in danger. I smell earth as the first drops of rain begin
to pepper the dusty ground. I can almost taste the electricity on the tip of my tongue. I can’t help
but hope one day to witness the destructive power and beauty of a tornado.
It is springtime and the warm weather birds have arrived. Courting rituals and nest building are
happening all around me. A bonded pair of barn swallows built a clay nest above the bathroom
window. It takes 1000 beak-loads of mud for swallows to craft their cup-shaped nest. All day the
pair perch on the barbed wire fence outside my bedroom window. Occasionally they swoop and
dart to catch flying insects to feed their offspring. This perch and hunt process is known as
hawking. Last year, a barn swallow family built their clay nest under the cover of the front porch.
Sitting on the couch under the window, the entire family witnessed the nest’s construction and
the eventual feeding of the nestlings. The cats especially enjoyed watching the swallow parents
feed their young. The cats made little chirping noises as their whiskers and upper lips twitched.
One day, late in summer, several nestlings from the second brood were lying on the porch
below their nest. I got out the ladder and carefully placed the babies back into their nest. This
was the first time I ever looked into a swallow nest. It was completely full of babies–there must
have been seven helpless, naked swallows. When they sensed me, their mouths popped open as if
expecting me to regurgitate into the wide-open beaks. “Good night sweeties,” I whispered as I
tucked the babies carefully in next to their siblings and crept back down the ladder.
The next morning, more nestlings were spilled onto the porch. This time, two were dead
and two more were seriously injured. I placed the two injured nestlings back in the nest while the
cats ate the dead babies. The two cats started to sit hopefully under the nest, waiting for the
tender bird babies to fall into their mouths.
Summer was quickly fading, and shortly after finding the nestlings on the porch, the pair
of swallow parents migrated away, abandoning their babies and nest. The carefully crafted clay
cup remains in the eaves of the porch cover, though now eastern phoebes have moved in.
Raising pet chickens was always a dream of mine, and life on the rural prairie offers vast space
for chickens to happily roam. I took in injured and unwanted chickens and I hoped to offer them
a peaceful existence. One spring morning, the hens were shrieking in alarm as if they had spotted
a predator. I went outside repeatedly, but I could not see what was upsetting them. Eventually, I
heard a hen shrieking from inside the nest box. When I opened the little door to investigate, I
found myself face to face with a six-foot-long black rat snake. I screamed and retreated as a
primal fear flooded my nervous system.
Once the shock wore off, I decided to remove the snake from the nest box. I slid the
handle of a corn broom under the snake’s dense body and lifted it out. The snake writhed and
wrapped its svelte body around the broomstick with lightning speed. She constricted around the
broom with so much force I dropped the broom stick. She jumped and fled into the tall grass.
Only a few minutes later the hens were yelling about the snake again as she found her way back
to the eggs. This second time I was better prepared for the snake’s movements. I lifted the snake
with the broom handle, tilted her into a five-gallon bucket, quickly covered the bucket, and
carried her down the road where I eased her out into a wheat field.
The cycle of snakes pursuing eggs never ends. I have learned to remove the eggs from the
nest box as soon as possible to keep the snakes away. I have also learned that rat snakes are
harmless unless they are attacked. I was the one attacking the snake though she did not hurt me.
My family eats few eggs, so what does it hurt to allow the snakes to eat a few infertile chicken
eggs anyway? We’re just as guilty of stealing from the chickens’ nest.
One morning, while preparing to mow the yard, I moved a log so I could access the long
grass that had grown around it. Underneath was a massive rat snake, rocking her head back and
forth as she finished swallowing her prey. Hanging from her mouth was the last of another
snake’s tail, a tail crowned with a rattle. After swallowing the last of the struggling rattlesnake,
the victorious rat snake slowly slithered her distended body back under the log. I never knew
snakes ate other snakes. Rat snakes are docile, non-venomous, and they eat venomous
rattlesnakes. So why not leave the black beauties alone?
I began to admire not just the rat snakes, but all snakes. Snakes are amazing creatures.
They smell through their tongues and hear through their jaw bones. They have no limbs yet are
expert climbers. Last summer, I witnessed a rat snake scale the rock siding on my front porch,
following the scent (or taste) to the barn swallow nest in the rafters of the porch roof. The snake
couldn’t figure out how to move from the rock and brick wall to the ceiling, so it gave up and
rested on the warm rock siding. I was astonished at its strength and perfectly orchestrated agile
movements. How rapidly and smoothly it moved from floor to ceiling.
Cotton County Oklahoma falls under the jurisdiction of the Comanche Nation. I live in a
place that was once called Big Pasture, a large tract of land leased from the Comanche people for
agricultural purposes. The Comanche are also called The Snake People, and their nation’s flag is
a symbol divided by a dark wavy line that represents a snake slithering backwards. In her book
Dwellings, Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan says of snakes:
Before Snake became the dark god of our underworld, burdened with human sin, it
carried a different weight in human bones; it was a being of holy inner earth. The smooth
gold eye, the hundred ribs holding life, it coiled beautifully and mysteriously around the
world of human imagination. In nearly all ancient cultures the snake was the symbol of
healing and wholeness (140).
As most city folks do, I feared snakes before I moved out here. After all these
experiences, I have learned to love snakes. When I see them now, I sit and watch them quietly
and am mesmerized by their beauty and energy. Where once their presence was a threat to me,
now I coexist peacefully with them.
The high winds stripped the eaves of the trim on the west side of the house. The landlord knows
the trim needs replacing, but there’s a certain amount of surrender to live in harmony on this
land. Exposed eaves offer eastern phoebes and barn owls a cozy place to raise their young.
A few weeks ago, I was driving down the country road and saw a large bird lying dead in
a heap. I pulled over and got out of the car to inspect it. Death always leaves me feeling
disturbed and sad, but I know it is an opportunity to observe creatures up close. This was the first
I had seen a barn owl and the intricate patterns on its feathers were breathtaking. I looked at it for
several minutes, taking in the details carefully. Its feathers were speckled and laced with dots of
varying shades of brown. Just days later, I found a pair of living barn owls had moved into my
A few nights ago, the sun was going down and the full moon was rising. I looked out the
window at the fading light and saw my fifteen-year-old pug bumbling around the yard. She had
gotten confused again and couldn’t find the front porch. I went out to guide her back to the
house. As I neared the little old pug, one of the barn owls who live in the roof swooped nearby
and shrieked. I froze, startled, and watched it flap away. Midnight, my black cat, appeared out of
nowhere and wound himself around my legs. I picked him up and held him to my chest. The barn
owl returned and lighted onto the power line, about ten feet away from me and looked directly
into my eyes. I stood mesmerized, staring into the complete blackness of its pupil, lacking all
color yet shining with life.
My in-laws laugh at me and tell people I am a witch. I had just found myself in a moment
where I was standing frozen in the twilight, under a Full Flower Supermoon, a black cat in my
arms, staring directly into a barn owl’s eyes. I suddenly think, maybe they have a point. But
maybe a witch is like a snake, simply misunderstood and therefore feared. A witch worships and
celebrates the cycles of nature and can find beauty and love for creatures like snakes. They call
me witch as an insult but maybe I should take it as a compliment.
The barn owl shrieked and flew away again. Midnight hopped down to pursue a small
rodent or an insect, his seemingly invincible body dissolved into the night. I helped the old pug
back into the house, completely spellbound by the beauty and wonder of the night.