By Curt Burnette
Gene Stratton-Porter loved snake fences. These were not fences designed to keep snakes away (Although, as discussed in a past column, Gene had a fear of snakes). No these were the old-fashioned split-rail fence that was not laid out in a straight line, but in a zig-zag pattern that resembled the body of a snake as it travels along the ground. Other names for this type of fence were zig-zag or worm fence. The zig-zag pattern gave the fence strength where each section met, eliminating the need for fence posts thus reducing the amount of labor.
Snake fences were very common around the Limberlost area while Gene lived in Geneva. They are mentioned often int eh nature books she wrote while she lived here. In "Music of the Wild," within the middle section entitled Songs of the Fields, she writes of an oat field "enclosed by a straggling old snake-fence overgrown with carrion vine and moonseed." Later in the same section she describes old abandoned orchards found on almost every farm. "Almost without exception the old snake-fences surround them, weighted with loads of growing shrubs and vines, and on and under them home [live] field mice, moles, rabbits, chipmunks, lizards, birds of low habit, night moths, and bugs and insects of innumerable species."
Gene was scornful of "progressive" farmers who used straight wire fences to enclose their grazing lands. This type of fence provided little habitat for plants to grow and for wildlife to "home." While the obvious benefits of more modern wire fences are undeniable, there is no question she was correct in observing the old snake fences were marvelous places for abundant and diverse vegetation and animals. even the fence rows of wire fence provided some habitat for wildlife, but modern fence-less fields, of course, do not.
In her book "What I Have Done With Birds," she describes her friend Bob Burdette Black leaping "the old snake fence, crossing the orchard to bring the camera" so she could get photographs of a catbird nest. A shrike nest she studied is in a solitary apple tree at the intersection of four snake fences. "There was no other tree close. Four lines of old snake-fences, bearing their usual load of treasures, crept to a meeting under its friendly boughs."
In "Homing With the Birds," Gene describes watching a hawk attempt to catch a chicken trying to hide from it in the shelter of a snake fence. The chicken would dart through the fence and the hawk would try to land on it. Then the chicken darted back through the fence and the "hawk arose and dropped on the other side of the fence." She was watching this drama from a railway car and did not see the ultimate outcome. "When the train carried us from the sight this performance was still going on."
Snake fences are rarely seen today. But in it at least one spot around Geneva there is still a section seen. If you happen to be driving north from town on Winchester Road, after crossing over County Road 950S, about .2 miles on down the road look to the left to see a zig-zagging section of snake fence along a yard and, for a brief moment, take a trip back in time.
Originally published in the Berne Witness, January 2018.