It’s the end of December and I’m finally getting around to raking my lawn. This is how December goes in the South. I see green. Weeds are still trying to dominate my efforts in the gardens and leaves are still clogging my gutters and occupying space reserved for grass.
I moved to the South six years ago from Wisconsin and never imagined raking leaves in December or needing to wear a sweater because the temperature was in the mid-50’s. What was once considered summer weather now gives me chills. Where I’m from, this time of year frost gathers on eyelashes while taking the brisk walk from the office to the car. Local Parks in the North intentionally flood the low spots for outdoor ice-skating rinks, and everyone owns their own ice skates.
Where I’m from, a toboggan is a sled with rudders. Here, it’s a hat. Imagine the conversation I had with a new friend from the South who got an unwanted toboggan for the holidays. My first question was, “where do you even use it?” and she said, “outside.” “Clearly,” I said. I wanted to know if there was snow enough to use it and she assured me that it gets cold here. It took us a long time to understand why I was so baffled by the concept of a toboggan in the South. When we finally did figure it out, my following question was, “what do you call a scarf?”
As nostalgic as I might be for snow and snowy type activities like making snowmen, shoveling, sliding down the driveway on my ass, and using the cold as an excuse to day drink hot whiskey drinks, raking leaves this time of year has its upsides too. For starters, I can recognize my neighbors because they aren’t disguised as the Michelin man for a jaunt outside. I also see neighbors because being outside in December in the South is lovely. Southerners have no reason to hibernate or send smoke signals from the fireplace. This is bonfire and marshmallow weather here.
This year, raking leaves had me waxing retrospectively about snow, snakes and personal growth.
The first year I owned my home here, I had raked the leaves into a pile, just like we did when I was a kid up North with a goal of romping, kicking, and scattering the leaves in a hey of wild abandon. I had big plans that included friends, puppies, and cider drinks.
As I prepped the pile, an old neighbor stopped by and poked the leaves with his cane. He said I 'ought come over to him for a spell.' The rasp of his deep drawl sounded out a warning that snakes like leaf piles in these parts and that “y’all (meaning me) might ought be more careful.”
Sure enough, I re-spread the leaves on the lawn and uncovered a small den.
Just to be clear, this was not a calm or collected event. I threw down my rake, swearing f*cks and Mother’s of God and more f*cks as I leapt a gate onto the patio, threw open my back door while simultaneously throwing my gloves out of the door, and skivvied in my kitchen while still dropping more f-bombs. Neighbors within ear shot were certain that a spawn of the devil had moved in next door the way I cursed and used God's name with the same mouth. They were probably as frightened of me than I was of the snakes.
It took me days to pick the rake back up. It had been contaminated with snake. The leaves were bagged one at a time and touched as if they were toxic. Each one lifted had the potential to uncover another snake. It was a very long raking season.
The following year, I found a class on snakes in the South and learned that I really only had one reason to be afraid out of dozens: the copperhead. The snakes in my leaf pile were a harmless garden variety that liked to eat grubs and I had a lot of those.
I also learned that snakes like wood piles. Frogs like clogged gutters. Skinks like compost piles and little green geckos love to sneak into my house and surprise me when I water my plants.
The steep learning curve keeps me swearing a lot but I’m learning to swear less…or at least to keep God out of the explicative mix. I’ve picked up the language of the South much in the same manner that I’ve grown accustomed to the heat and the lack of true cold. Sometimes I think I miss snow…but I’ve learned that I can throw my back out just as good with a rake as I can with a shovel.