SNAKE HUNTING – FIELD NOTES BY MICHAEL GAIGE
“Can we hunt snakes?” a wide-eyed boy of 12 pleaded to me while we were still in the parking lot at Miles Lakes canoe launch. Casey (not his real name) was there with his “big” as part of a hike I was leading for Big Brothers Big Sisters sponsored by the United Way of Louisville. We were 9 in all, four littles, four bigs, and me.
After flatly saying “no” I tried to convince Casey of snakes’ importance in the ecosystem, and express they had a right to live in this place. It didn’t faze him; he was on a mission to engage with nature in a noble, direct, and more intimate way. I respect that. I often feel the same.
We walked down the old farm road along Floyds Fork (now under construction as the Louisville Loop) to a gravel bar. Along the way we looked at exotic honeysuckle, sycamore trees, and a butterfly.
Once on the gravel bar the kids spread out and began poking around on their own. Stones, mussel shells, plants. This might be the most important part of engaging kids with nature: allowing them freedom and independence to explore, be creative, and discover unencumbered by instruction. But as the leader I felt obligated to keep them tasked.
“Who wants to learn how to skip stones?” I asked. None of them had done this before. “Everyone find a flat stone, as flat as you can find.”
The geology of The Parklands does not lend itself to perfect skipping-stones. Perfect stones are made of shale, which Floyds Fork has, but our shale is soft and breaks up easily. The local limestone, however, cleaves into thin beds, making good skippers, just not as perfect as shale. Nevertheless, there are plenty of good skippers on the Fork’s shoals and Casey and the others set out searching.
“I found an arrowhead!” he exclaimed.
“What? Let’s see!” I said with disbelief. The other littles and bigs gathered in.
Sure enough, he found a perfect projectile point (see photo). Ask a kid to find a flat stone, and he’ll find you the flattest, most storied stone in the river. Kids have particularly good search images, and Casey in particular. His desire to engage with nature on a deeper level, primarily as a snake hunter, left him acutely aware.
“Can we hunt snakes now?” Casey asked, again. Now armed, he really wanted to hunt snakes.
As Casey went scouring the gravel bar for a spear-shaft I whispered to the other adults that this was an important find, and somehow we needed to get it for the park, to learn what we can from it, add it to the collection of artifacts, and use it for education.
At this point I should mention that 21st Century Parks has, as a condition of its construction permits, had to have a number of archeological studies conducted in The Parklands. Finding ancient artifacts is challenging—you dig up a miniscule portion of the landscape and sift through it trying to discern genuine artifacts from random occurrences, if you find anything at all. For us non-archeologists, there is definitely a “coolness” factor in these discoveries: a rock with some chips flaked out is rather unexciting and luke-warm, while a perfectly-shaped arrowhead, like the one Casey found, isreally, really, cool. Our hired archeologists found mostly luke-warm material, while our snake-hunter found awesomeness.
To their credit, however, our archeologists did find awesomeness in Beckley Creek Park. There they uncovered a midden, basically an ancient trash pile. And this one happened to be made of mussel shells. Thousands of years ago, there must have been a fine mussel bed in the Fork near what is now a playground. People plucked mussels from the stream, removed the meat, and left the shells in a pile on the bank. Very, very, cool.
I sent photos of Casey’s find to our hired archeologists and they felt confident that the point was Early Archaic in age: roughly 8000 to 10,000 years old. Like I said: very, very cool.
There is no way to know exactly where the point came from, as it was in the stream and undoubtedly tumbled with floods. We’re also not sure where it was made as chert, an uncommon rock in our region. For the imaginative a number of other questions arise: did this point kill any animals? If so, what kind? How often? Who made it? And who used it? Like I said, this might be the most storied rock in the stream. (An argument can be made that fossils of Floyds Fork are equally storied, going back 450 million years to a shallow marine sea.)
This isn’t the only arrowhead found in The Parklands by nonprofessionals: I found a similar, but broken, point in a bank of Floyds Fork in Broad Run Park. You can read about that story HERE. Additionally, a number of our farmers speak of the old-days when they found “buckets of arrowheads” in their fields.
Surprisingly, Casey gave up the arrowhead without the fuss that I would have put up when I was 12. I was imagining tears. Once we left the gravel bar we were on to looking at trees, old fences, and a small waterfall.
Casey, thankfully, didn’t end up hunting snakes on our hike. Not surprisingly, we didn’t see any. But I hope he realized that his attentiveness and awareness was as strong as that of the maker of the arrowhead. And it’s attentiveness that forms the noble and intimate relationship with nature. Humans have been hunters and wanderers far longer than we have been agriculturists or suburbanites. We all have within us this ancient attentiveness that comes with being directly tied to the land. Simply put, it’s old.
This landscape, The Parklands, has had so many hunters wander through over the past 13,000 years or so. Now new ones are coming. They’ll be hunting for quiet places away from the city, or places to let their kids roam. Or, they’ll be hunting for snakes…..but let’s hope, with a camera.
About the Author
Michael Gaige became involved with 21st Century Parks in 2007 on a recommendation from his graduate adviser, Tom Wessels, author of Reading the Forested Landscape. His first project was to groundtruth the nearly 4,000 acres around Floyds Fork to discover and document interesting places park users will experience and learn about. He then compiled a Natural Areas Plan to ensure that the parks’ forests and meadows are well-tended, and park infrastructure is designed in accordance with the landscape’s history and ecological detail. Michael now works as a freelance ecologist and educator and lives in upstate New York. He returns to Louisville periodically to share with others his favorite places in The Parklands, and to visit his cherished old trees.