Jun 5, 2009
She lies in the sun, in a patch of short grass. Her body is coiled between a cluster of lady’s thumb and a clump of mullein. I see her just in time to stop and kneel by her side. Another step and we’d have missed each other entirely.
I’ve generated a lot of heat walking up the steep trail. It radiates from my skin, pulsing with the beat of my heart. Sweat trickles along my hairline, down the small of my back.
I wonder if she feels my animal warmth. I wonder if my presence makes a difference to her.
Not that she needs a midwife, or that I could play that role. She’s quite capable of birthing her babies alone. But I’d like to think she senses my benign presence, knows I’m by her side and intend her and her offspring no harm. If not exactly a second sun, at least I’m a serviceable heat lamp. I’m also a human shield against predators—raptors and turkeys mainly—that might nab her young for dinner before they’re dry.
Perhaps I am, indeed, better than nothing. Better than her being alone.
The first babe arrives coated in mucous the consistency and clarity of an egg white. His pencil-thin body looped over itself, forming an ideal bow, the infinity symbol—head and tail crossed perfectly, evenly in the middle.
He is still. I resist the urge to prod him there before me on the dry grass. Since I’ve never attended a snake birth before, I don’t know what’s normal. I don’t know what to expect.
All I can do is watch and wait for what happens next.
Finally, he moves his head, breaks the infinity loop, and proceeds into the universe. Slowly, he journeys from creation to created. I watch, mesmerized, as potential becomes reality right here, right now, in front of me. The young garter snake continues to extend his body, incrementally, into the sunlight.
A sibling arrives. Meanwhile, her elder brother’s unfolding continues. Within minutes he is straightened, stretched to his full eight-inch length. Another sibling arrives as he begins to slide forward. He glides easily and his birth-coat rolls off him like a stocking—his first shed skin. When he’s free of it, he departs without pausing—gone into the brush and away from me.
Only minutes on Earth and already he’s living the life he was born to live.
There are more than 120 species of non-venomous snakes in North America; however, it’s the four venomous species—rattlesnake, cottonmouth, copperhead, and coral snake—that loom large in the American imagination. We’ve been conditioned, as a culture if not as a species, to loathe snakes for the three percent of their kind capable of seriously harming us. We’ve been taught to loathe them despite the fact that their inclination to harm us depends entirely on our behavior toward them—not at all on some inherent evil intention on their part.
There are approximately 8,000 venomous snakebites in the US every year, yet only about a dozen deaths, fewer than are caused by bee or wasp stings. This low mortality rate is likely due to the fact that only one in four of these snakebites contains venom. Defensive strikes are most often dry bites. Unless deliberately, persistently annoyed, snakes use the energy required to apply venom only offensively, when hunting for dinner.
Happily, snakes in this country do not view people as dinner. Pests—yes. Dinner—no.
My deliberate effort is required to get a snake to waste his or her venom on me. And this makes sense when I think about venom as a resource. A snake that wastes venom can’t compete with a snake that doesn’t. Wastefulness is anathema to survival—a luxury, a human invention other creatures, snakes included, can’t afford. Unless, of course, the imminent threat I pose leaves them no alternative, no escape route, no choice.
When I invade a snake’s home, occupy her personal space, touch and torment her, prod and poke her, when I pick her up in my hands—someplace she was not designed to be—it shouldn’t surprise me that she resents this treatment. It shouldn’t offend me that she defends herself.
Confronted with such a persistent aggressor, wouldn’t I, wouldn’t any creature do the same?
Yet it’s so easy, so comforting even, to blame the snake. It’s so easy to reverse our roles—to make her the evildoer, and me the victim. Then to build a mythology of snake behavior, of
snake-ishness itself, that supports this new status quo, this inverse reality.
How else to explain the widespread hatred of snakes?
It’s certainly not a rational hatred, not based on empirical evidence, on clear and present danger, on imminent threat.
Snakes are important members of a healthy ecosystem. The presence of snakes in this country is not a threat to human health—the absence of snakes in this country very much is.
Still, the notion persists that the only good snake is a dead snake.
I watch the arrival of the sixth young garter snake, another perfect copy of his mother. Birth no less miraculous for its happening to a reptile. I can’t bring myself to diminish it.
If God made me, God made snakes, too.