The Savage South


Have you ever tried to pull a young saw palmetto out of a lawn? Just one fan leaf, maybe two, maybe four inches tall. First you send out a silent apology for ending a brand-new life, then you bend down and pull. Nothing. Not a millimeter. You pull with more force. No. Now you straighten up, frown. Okay then. You fetch the weeder, that little lever tool designed to get under the root. You plunge the steel spearpoint into the ground, under the plant, as deep as possible and push down. A tearing sound! Certain of success, you pull again. Sorry. You reposition yourself, try from another angle. Nope.

If you’re a sixty-four-year old woman with arthritic hands and worn-out shoulders, this is when you stand back and marvel. All you can do is snip the wee plant at ground level, acknowledging its imminent return. It has no choice. All it knows is life.

Greenbrier is another opportunist in the lawn. While this plant can be yanked out more readily than palmetto, doing so is like playing whack-a-mole. In the time it takes you to prize the long white root from your turf, another upstart appears. I still have a red scar on my ankle from an attack by one of these thorny vines three weeks ago, before I understood that in order to survive here, one must move slowly and focus on the ground.

Reaching for the hose faucet a few days ago, I glimpsed a flash of movement not two feet from me. I gaped, stunned to see a snake so close, and not an innocent garden variety but something coiled and menacing. I could tell from the triangular head that it was venomous, but not until my spouse came out with the trusty Audubon guide did I learn that it was a young cottonmouth whose bite causes intense pain, bleeding, swelling, nausea and potential amputation.

Yesterday a katydid landed on my back door. I peered through the glass at the leggy green bug, gradually becoming aware that it was missing the lower portion of its body; then I noticed it was also missing one of its hind legs. I don’t imagine a katydid can live for long without these vital parts, and I realized the injuries were fresh, that in some hidden pocket of my verdant yard there was a frog or toad or snake with half a meal in its mouth.

We have box turtles here with bright yellow streaks on their leathery skin and beautifully patterned shells. There you are watering a shrub and here one comes, appearing out of nowhere, on its way to somewhere. They are a delightful surprise. The first time I saw one I knelt beside it and placed my hand on its shell, wondering if I could transmit my goodwill through the simple method of touch. We stayed that way a moment, my hand cupping the generous domed shell, the turtle, head tucked, eyeing me with equal interest. At some point I noticed that a good part of its shell, the area behind the head, was missing, no doubt a run-in with a vehicle. The turtle seemed no worse for the injury, and I have since learned that turtles can grow back at least some of their shell. I have also learned that box turtles commonly carry salmonella; I don’t touch them anymore.

I keep a flashlight near the back door so that when I come out before dawn I can sweep the beam across the cement, making sure I don’t step on something with a beating heart. The other day I saw a black wasp flying out of a small hole in the frame of my deck chair, reminding me of the swallows next door that made a nest in the open sewer pipe of the home under construction. You can find at least three small frogs perched inside my hose reel box any time you lift the lid. Not for a minute does anything go to waste here. There is panic in the air, the hum of a million creatures trying to stay alive.

I am just one of them, hoping my modest savings will last longer in Alabama than in California and that my new home will survive the coming storms.

Published by

Jean Ryan

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her short story collections, SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, are available online. STRANGE COMPANY, a collection of short nature essays, is available in paperback as well as digital and audio editions.

2 thoughts on “The Savage South

  1. Words that let me “see” the story. This one is quite special because it helps me place my friends in the context of their new home, which feels so far away! I love hearing about the critters, even the weeds, but am not too fond of the snake (having grown up around rattlesnakes in Arizona). As always, Jean’s writing leaves me wanting more.

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