An excerpt from
SEE YOU IN A HUNDRED YEARS:
Four Seasons In Forgotten America
By Logan Ward
The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.
The twentieth century began on a Tuesday.
I am standing behind a rundown farmhouse in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The yard is rank with weeds. A massive gray barn looms above. Something catches my eye, a jerky movement near the henhouse. A snake dangles from the rafters. It stretches its body over to an old window missing its panes. Doubling itself between the muntins, the serpent rests its head on its bulging body, soaking up the day’s final sunlight. Mesmerized, I ease up the garden path for a closer look, shadows creeping like gnomes between the plants. The snake stares dead at me, tongue silently probing. It’s a real beast, as thick around as my forearm and probably six feet long, brown-black—though in the dying light it’s hard to tell—with faint diamond markings. Behind me, a crunching sound. I swing around to find Luther trundling up. “Da-da,” he says in his raspy voice, arms outstretched. I scoop him up and hustle back toward the house, suddenly aware of those tender feet stepping through the high grass.
Of all the dangers we will soon face during our trip back in time, including gashing a shin with a wild axe swing, searing flesh on the woodstove, and getting kicked by our draft horse—due to arrive in three weeks—none worries me more than a snakebite. There are two breeds of poisonous snake found here in the Valley—the rattlesnake and the copperhead. Both are pit vipers, and both carry venom lethal to children under three. Last week, our son turned two.
As we struggle to meet our project’s start date, I am racked by doubts. I lay awake at night, tortured by visions of Luther toddling across a serpent coiled beneath a stack of rotting fenceposts—the lightning-fast strike and retreat, the innocent shrieks, the chance we won’t even know it was a snake given Luther’s limited vocabulary. And when the leg swells and blackens there we’ll be, miles from town with no phone, one of us—me probably, Heather staying behind to hold him—sprinting the half mile to the nearest neighbor for help, praying I’ll find them home, and if not, running another half mile to the next.
I enter the kitchen and strap Luther into his high chair against kicks and screams of protest. Earlier in the day, Heather said that I was smothering her, that she’d go crazy if she didn’t get a break from our frenzied preparations. Tight-lipped and petulant, she sped away in the station wagon to a yoga class, leaving me here to stew, distracted by the many unfinished tasks—fitting stovepipe, hammering together an outhouse, planting the beans and corn that will sustain us for the year—while also dealing with Luther. Why the hell won’t he stop screaming?
When I return to the henhouse, the shadows are deeper. The snake is gone.
“Wait here,” I say the next morning, leaving Luther and Heather at the picnic table and marching up to the henhouse gripping a hoe. Three steps into the tall grass, I freeze. A different, smaller snake warms its scales in the sun.
“Here’s one,” I say, eyes fixed on the snake. From the coloring and the shape of the head, I’m sure it’s neither rattler nor copperhead, but that fact does nothing to calm my trembling hands. “I’m going to try to catch it.”
“What are you going to do once you catch it?” Heather says.
“Get it away from the henhouse. Snakes eat eggs.” In a few weeks, after our chickens have moved in and we’re cut off from supermarkets, we can’t allow a thief in their midst.
Sizing up the serpent, I try to remember if I’ve ever handled a live snake and faintly recall a school field trip, a candy-striped garter, and a funk that took forever to wash off my palms. Okay, I think. Pin the head, and grab the neck, just like Marlin Perkins used to do. But when I extend the hoe, the snake jerks back and whips its body into a coil, tail quivering, head bobbing away from the blade. I dance around like a stooge, unable to gain the advantage.
“Just kill it,” Heather spits.
You don’t kill non-poisonous snakes, I think. But I feel cornered and edgy, embarrassed by my impotence. A rage wells up inside me. I raise the hoe above my head and bring it down with a fleshy thud on the coiled body. I hack again, leaving the snake confused, hissing, mouth agape and bloody. Hack! Hack! Soon the head hangs by a sinew and the body lies torn into several lengths. My arms are shaking. They sting from the blows. The anger leaves me like an exhalation, replaced immediately by shame.
Over the next few weeks, as we grind ourselves down preparing to begin our experiment—bickering, fretting, racing to and from town on the single-lane farm roads—the snakes haunt us. I find a snakeskin hanging like a giant condom from a limb outside Luther’s second-story window and another poking out of the backyard downspout. I shoo snakes out of the barnyard and the grass encircling the house. A small brown patterned snake that could be a copperhead zigzags across the driveway. I hear a scream and rush to find Heather pointing at a fat rat snake stretched across the back step. “Why won’t they leave us alone?” she says, having almost stepped on it. I go around the house jamming strips of T-shirt in knotholes in the floor after learning that in winter snakes slither up from crawl spaces for warmth. One day the old-timer who used to manage this farm delivers a warning. “I killed a rattler behind the barn a couple years back,” he says. “When it gets dry, watch out! That’s when they come down from the mountains hunting water.”
Goodbye, New York
In the City, you don’t stargaze. You don’t dig through wildflower field guides for the name of that brilliant trumpet burst of blue you saw on your morning walk. You don’t hunt for animal tracks in the snow or pause in that same frozen forest, eyes closed, listening for the chirp of a foraging nuthatch. You forget such a creature as a snake even exists. It’s as if New York is encased in a big plastic bubble, where humans sit atop the food chain armed with credit cards and Zagat guides. Native wildlife? Cockroaches, pigeons, rats. Disease transmitters. Boat payments for exterminators.
Our story begins in the bubble.
The year is 2000, the dawn of a new millennium. The Y2K scare is barely behind us. Economic good times lie ahead, with unemployment at an all-time low, the U.S. government boasting record surpluses, and the NASDAQ, which raised a lusty cheer by topping 5,000, making everyone rich. At least on paper. Living in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest nation at the wealthiest moment in history, Heather and I should be happy. We aren’t.