My Overgrown Jungle of Tomatoes
My bare feet delighted in parting the thick summer grass, blissfully unaware of the danger I was about to encounter.
I was on my way to the tomato patch. I hadn't wanted this jungle of indeterminate tomato plants. But a freeze had wiped out my initial planting of the more orderly bushes of paste tomatoes. (If you don't know what indeterminate tomatoes are, or you would like to see some video of the tomato patch, check out this short video: Homesteading Basics: Determinate vs Indeterminate Tomatoes)
These unwanted tomato plants had megalomaniacal tendencies. They created a forest that sprawled and climbed all over everything. They were producing way more foliage than tomatoes. So I had to plunge deep into the patch to find anything.
A Blessing and a Curse
But wow, did I start grinning when my explorations revealed a fat 6″ diameter beefsteak tomato hanging in the shade.
My mouth started to water as I cradled the heavy beauty.
Whew, I had no idea this thing had been growing in there. Oh, the bragging rights! It is almost impossible to grow this big beautiful variety in our climate. And this was a showcase specimen. Were there any more in there?
Pushing further into the nightshade jungle, I felt a cat's claw vine hook into the top of my foot. Reactively jerking my foot, the barb worked its way in deeper.
That Wasn't a Cat's Claw
On second thought, I realized that there was a bigger problem.
There are no cat's claws vines, or any other plants with thorns, in my garden.
Hmm, was the sting from a really big scorpion? Actually it felt sort of like an ice pick in the top of my foot. It was stronger than a spider bite for sure. And it was definitely stronger than fire ants.
What could it be?
Brushing aside the tangle of tomato plant branches, I knelt down. I saw two neat puncture wounds in the top of my left foot and one big drop of blood. The three of them made a perfect equilateral triangle with about ¼" sides.
Read more: The Barefoot Friendly Project
The first rule of snake encounters is to stay calm.
OK, so I needed to stay calm.
I took a deep breath and went through the snakebite facts I knew.
The CDC (American Center for Disease Control and Prevention) states that venomous snakes bite only 7,000 to 8,000 people in the US each year. And only about 5 of these people die. (https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/snakes/)
I didn't really know those exact specifics at the moment, but I did know it was something like that. Anyway, I figured the odds were in my favor and it helped to keep me calm.
Identifying the Culprit
The second rule of snakebites is to try and identify the snake. You don't want to spend a ton of time doing this.
Ideally you should know the snakes that live in your area ahead of time. Be familiar with what they look like so you can identify them quickly.
"Hopefully it was just a rat snake, or a king snake," I thought. We have a lot of those guys, as they like to eat my chickens' eggs. They also do valuable work eating mice and rodents in the barn so I don't get too upset at them being around.
Plus, rat and king snakes aren't venomous. If one of them bites you, the worst thing that can happen is the wound getting infected. And preventing infection is easy to avoid with good wound care.
So I would be happy if it were a rat or king snake bite.
Delighted really, when you consider the other options.
Read more: Use Plastic Snakes to Keep Critters Away
Using The Process of Elimination
The snake with the deadliest venom in my area is the coral snake with its bright red, yellow, and black bands. They look sort of like a corn snake, which is also occasionally in this area. The way to tell the difference between the two is to remember that famous poem "red next to yellow kill a fellow, red next to black OK for Jack."
I do see the deadly coral snakes from time to time, but they are always very small. In fact, their mouths are generally too small to do much of anything to humans – except if they get a small toe or finger. But it is extremely rare in my area to get bitten – or die – from a coral snake.
Plus, the way this bite was on top of my foot I knew it couldn't be a coral snake.
But I looked around under the tomato plants looking for the bright colors anyway, just in case. Even though I know all of this, a sigh of relief slipped out when didn't see a coral snake anywhere.
I continued looking for any kind of snake.
Know Your Local Snakes
The rattlesnake, for which the Southwest is famous, can certainly kill you. Or at least make your life miserable for a couple of weeks. According to Wikipedia, of the 20 venomous snakes in the US, 16 of them are some form of rattlesnake.
But rattlers prefer rocky outcroppings and I have never seen a rattlesnake on our sandy, post oak savannah, land. None of my closest neighbors had seen a rattler either.
How do you know what kind of snakes live in your area? Especially if have just moved in? Here are three suggestions:
• Start asking the neighbors. Everyone has snake stories (you may hear more than you want, but at least you'll know what can be around).
• Your local Extension office, which probably has a wildlife biologist on staff, will also know.
• And finally, one of my favorite go-to wildlife books is the Readers Digest Guide to North American Wildlife available here at Amazon: https://astore.amazon.com/wwwbackyardfo-20/detail/1606524917 (Yes, yes, The Grow Network earns like 15 cents if you buy it through this link). This book is for all of North America, and there are lots of great books out there for your region. Look around and I am sure you'll find one.
And, since the Grow Network is a global community, I dug through the Internet and sourced some other free resources to help you. Below are some good online PDF docs with photos and identification guides for snakes.
Hey, if you know of a good resource, why not drop a comment down below in the comments section? I'll add it to the list.
• South African venomous snakes (28 page document with 10 extremely deadly snakes in that region… including the Black Mamba. Nice photos and detailed descriptions): https://www.hikinginfo.co.za/DOCS/Snake Guide.pdf
• Venomous Snakes of Nepal (86 page document with beautiful photos covering kraits, cobras, king cobras, coral snakes, bipers, and pit vipers): https://www.bik-f.de/files/publications/kuch_venomous_snakes_of_nepal_-_english_edition.pdf
• SNAKES: Pictorial Key To Venomous Species In United States (4 page document with very detailed line drawings of snake heads and how to identify venomous snakes): https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/Docs/Pictorial_Keys/Snakes.pdf
The main takeaway from all this is that it is important to be familiar with the snakes that share your neighborhood.
The Last Option: Copperhead
So I was pretty sure it wasn't a coral snake or a rattler. The other options were some of our more harmless snakes… or the final concern; a copperhead.
I knew that while a copperhead bite could also be a very painful experience – sometimes dragging on for weeks – it is rarely fatal.
Since I didn't see any snakes around, and I didn't want to spend a ton of time looking for the snake (and you shouldn't either) I walked back to the house.
My husband Dave was in the kitchen.
"I've been snake bit."
"Do you know what kind?" he asked.
He came over and looked at my foot. The drop of blood had smeared into a big Nike swoosh. He glanced up at the clock. "It's about 7:45, did it just happen?"
"Does it hurt?"
"It is starting to," I said.
He looked again. "Hmm, punctures about 1/4″ to 3/8″ apart… It was a young'un."
We both had heard the stories that baby copperheads are more dangerous because they can't control their venom and they inject all they have. I don't know if that theory is true or not. And I guessed that while young, this one wasn't a baby.
But it is true that the venom in a young snake is just as dangerous as in a fully-grown adult. The feeling of the fangs digging in when I jerked my foot back haunted me. I had probably gotten a good-sized dose.
Herbal Care for Snake Bites
"What should we poultice it with?" Dave asked.
Being late June, I had no cabbages on hand. The plantain plants that grow on our land are very narrow leafed and tiny. It would take forever to gather enough.
I racked my brain. I thought of the half-gallon jar of dried nettle leaf on the shelf in the pantry. But it wouldn't be enough, and I wasn't sure that was a good poultice material anyway.
"Prickly pear pads," I said. "The ones behind the cow shed are a thorn-less variety and good sized."
There really is no such thing as a thorn-less prickly pear, but there are some that are less thorny than others.
Years ago there had been a craigslist ad for free thorn-less cactus plants that needed to be rescued or they would be destroyed. A girlfriend and I made the expedition into Austin and filled up two big sacks full of the pads. I planted them behind the cowshed where it tends to be very hot and dry, which is what they like. I occasionally cut back the grass from around them, but they mostly thrived in their new home with little help from me. Over the years they have given me much medicine and food.
Actually, if you want to see the patch, it is the same one we filmed Doug Simons harvesting pads to use in the video we created on Treating Infections Without Antibiotics.
Our Living Room Rug: Workshop, Community Center, Hospital, and More…
"I am going to take a cold shower to reduce my blood circulation and I'll be laying down here in the living room when you get back." I pointed to the big rug. Everything of importance in our family happens either around the dining table or on the living room rug.
These are the centers of most family activity.
Every evening my family gathers around the rug to hang out together. Through the years, most of my kid's school projects were created on the living room rug. Vast amounts of artwork have been created on the rug. There have been countless wresting matches, yoga sessions, and gymnastics events held on the rug. At Christmas, the wrappings from piles of presents will be ripped open on the rug. I birthed my daughter on the living room rug.
No, it is not the same identical rug through the decades. With all that activity we change the rug out every few years.
Read more: Grow Your Own Food and Freak Out Teenagers
I'm Not Afraid to Break the Rules… a Little
Technically, by the rules, I should have laid down immediately and skipped the cold shower. But I was hot and dirty from outdoor work and I correctly guessed that things were going to get much worse. I didn't want to go into this experience sticky and smelly.
The third rule of snakebites is to lay down as soon as possible.
Dave took a long time to get the prickly pear pads. By the time he got back my foot had swollen enough that you could no longer see the puncture marks. And the pain was increasing.
It was definitely a copperhead bite.
Poulticing a Snake Bite with Prickly Pear
Dave had made poultices of cabbage for me years ago when I had mastitis. But he had never harvested prickly pear, nor made a poultice from it before. He knew the general principles as he had seen me treat myself for other injuries. He is not the kind of guy to ask for, or read, directions. So he went at it boldly on his own.
He decided to skin the outside of a big pad and then scar it criss-cross with a knife to give it some flexibility. He attempted to apply this to my foot by tying it together with some cloth strips I keep in the medical bag.
I wondered if this technique might actually work.
Dave sort of understood it wasn't right and asked, "Is this OK?"
You certainly don't want to upset the people who are helping you in an emergency. I said, "Hon, I realize now why Doug always takes apart the pad to make a slimy mush for the poultice. That way the material can fit to the contour of the body. The one you made doesn't get that much good contact."
He nodded with understanding while trying to work a small thorn out of his finger.
I mentioned, "You know, if you take two big rocks you can use them to scrape all the thorns off the pad before you remove the pad from the plant. It makes it super easy to harvest."
Warding Off Infection After a Snake Bite
As he headed back out to the prickly pear patch to get more to try again, I asked my 15 year old daughter Kimber to prepare me some garlic. She peeled a fresh clove and crushed it with the side of a knife. Then she minced it repeatedly. She brought me a tablespoon of the garlic mash medicine and a small glass of water as a chaser.
I wanted the garlic for insurance against internal infection. I was about to ask her for some echinacea tincture when a wave of pain came. The echinacea would have been good to help my immune system, but as events unfolded, I never got around to asking for it and it was forgotten.
Here Comes the Pain
Pain tends to come in waves, and it was rising much like an incoming ocean tide. Coming in strongly, backing off a bit, and then surging to a new level of intensity.
With the next low in pain, I started giving Kimber directions on how to log into my account in the Honors Lab and where to find the video on treating snakebites.
Dave came back from the prickly pear patch more quickly this time.
"How's the pain?" he asked.
We all laughed for a moment at the absurdity of that question.
Dave remembered the thing paramedics and doctors always ask: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how much pain are you feeling right now?"
That seemed funny too. But we decided that a 1 or 2 was your typical fire ant bites or small scratches that drew some blood. Level 10 was so bad you were on the precipice of passing out. At about 5 or 6 the pain demanded most of your attention but was manageable.
I decided it was going in waves between a level 3 and 7. At its peaks, the pain absolutely demanded my full attention, but I had certainly endured worse.
Dave nodded agreement with my assessment. A copperhead had bitten him just three years ago so he knew what I was going through.
When Poulticing a Snakebite… GO BIG!
Things then started getting a little hazy for me as the waves came with more pain and less relief. I heard the sounds of chopping in the kitchen and the video going in the office.
Dave got a new slushier version of a poultice on my foot. It felt so good… The cool, slimy, green, soothing cactus was a good, good thing.
But there are two things about a poultice that most people get wrong. The first mistake is most people make poultices too small. You really need to cover a large area.
When I surfaced from the next round of pain I told Dave, "You know what Hon? We are going to need about 4 to 5 times more material. My whole foot needs to be encased in poultice."
Dave went back to the patch again and got more pads. He came back much faster this time and made a bigger poultice. At some point I was vaguely surprised to become aware that both he and Kimber were in the office intently watching the Treating Infections Without Antibiotics video and figuring out what to do.
Dave discovered that he could use the blender to speed up the process of making the prickly pear slurry. He also figured out the following system for applying the poultice to this unusually-shaped area. First he put my foot into an old pillowcase. Then he poured the prickly pear slurry in so it was covering and surrounding my foot. Then he used a plastic bag to contain the oozing that was coming out of the pillowcase. And finally, he wrapped the whole thing up with a towel and tied it in place with cloth strips.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
The pain was increasing more now. "Kimber, please get me that homemade pain medicine. It's in the way back of the pantry. The black stuff in the pint jar with the white lid." Normally, all of my home medicine is labeled and dated. But this stuff is special and only Kimber and I know about it.
Dave furrowed his brow, "What is that stuff Hon?" he asked. "If I end up taking you to the hospital I need to tell them…"
"It's a low grade level of morphine," I said. "It's nothing like the strong stuff they shot you up with."
Dave had been in such pain in the hospital when he was bitten.
My homemade analgesic could take the edge off the pain; make it bearable. It wasn't strong enough to take all the pain away. But just taking the edge off is a really good thing sometimes. I rarely used it, and when I did it was because I really needed it. It is pretty easy to grow the plants for it in your garden and process the medicine at home. I make a batch every few years so I always have a small supply on hand. (If you want to know the process, check out the article in the "Inside Edition," which is the private blog for those with Honors Lab access, but your local herbalist could probably teach you how to do it too.)
Kimber got me an ounce or so of the medicine.
I now was mostly focused on dealing with pain that was now swinging more from 5 to 8 on 'the scale.'
It was going to get much worse before the night was through. But every cloud has a silver lining, and in coming agony I would have a deeply life-changing mystical experience.
There's more to come. Click here to read Part 2… https://thegrownetwork.com/got-venomous-snake-bite-treated-home-lived-tell-tale-part-2/