Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The monster in the garden

 The odds are that the picture that accompanies this note gives you the creeps. For most people, there’s really no way around it.

I tried to find a less disturbing picture of a cottonmouth water moccasin – the primary subject of this note – but I’m not sure such a thing exists. I found several examples that were actually beautiful, such as one of a snake lithely swimming through lily pads. But I had to admit that even a beautiful picture featuring a snake is repulsive. There you are, enjoying the lovely scene and then: Look out! There’s a snake in those lily pads!

There is basis for this fear. Poisonous snakes are dangerous. But there’s more to it than that. Unless you’re a herpetologist, you probably have an overdeveloped fear of snakes. By now you may even wish you could “hide” the cottonmouth photo, which would probably not be the case if it depicted, say, an alligator or a grizzly, which are more dangerous. Why is that?

The question came to mind after I mentioned, on my facebook status update, that I had come upon a water moccasin while trail running near my place in Mississippi. It was just a status update, a throwaway thought, but the responses came fast and furious. One of my facebook friends summed up a common refrain when she wrote, “The only good snake is a dead snake.” Yet some of the readers who were most repulsed kept up with all the responses, betraying a morbid fascination. I’ve noticed this before when the subject of snakes comes up: People are disgusted by them, but can’t get enough of stories involving them. Everyone has a snake story. It’s the conversational equivalent of a horror flick.

A recent study delved into the reasons for our almost universal fear of snakes. The scientists concluded that the fear was an evolutionary response – early man recognized that anything that crawls quietly on the ground, hides easily and can inflict a fatal bite is to be feared, and that fear was incorporated into our genetic coding. It’s something of a no-brainer – even children who were asked to peruse a series of photos could find the snake hidden in them almost immediately, yet took longer to find, say, a hidden flower. What the study didn’t really answer is why our fear is so intense.

I’ve had my share of snake encounters, and as I was running on my network of mountain bike trails, as I do most every day when I’m in Mississippi, I ran up onto that big, fat water moccasin. Previous snake encounters on the same trails had involved non-venomous species that were hurriedly crossing my path; they seemed as eager as I was to put the encounter behind them. This one, on the other hand, was actually following the trail, in the opposing direction, as in: "Comin' THU!" and refused to give way. After screeching to a halt and backing up with a cartoonish, circular blur of legs, I hid behind a tree to safely observe the snake, hoping it would move on so I could continue down the trail. It didn’t. Water moccasins can be aggressive, but this one seemed more obstinate and suspicious. It never coiled up. When it did finally move, it slithered just to the side of the trail, where it was camouflaged by the leaves, and waited. This made me hate it even more. I chose an alternate route. 

The encounter took some of the joy out of the remaining run. The jumping of curving, snake-sized tree roots crisscrossing the trail lost much of its allure. Plus, it now seemed that the chances of encountering a snake had exponentially increased, and brought with it the peril of venom-injecting fangs. This snake, after all, in addition to being poisonous and unaccommodating, had actually been following the trail, which was very different from a random crossing.  I began to attribute more meaning to this encounter than is probably warranted. It didn’t help when so many facebook readers responded that they had also been seeing a lot of snakes lately, in one case suggesting it might be mating season. I began to have second thoughts about trail-running in the current herpetological environment. 

I don't bother non-venomous snakes. I have no problem with snakes in general, and even the moccasin on my running trail had beautiful markings and coloration (the word "striking" comes to mind). But I do not like to encounter pit vipers in places where I frequently go, especially when I’m miles from nowhere, alone, with a heart that is already racing. In my experience, water moccasins almost never run from you. I'd have killed this one if I'd had something to kill it with.

Wilson Carroll, who was among those who responded to my status update, wrote that it must be mating season because his young son had shot and killed four moccasins at the family farm in the Mississippi Delta the weekend before, in the span of 10 minutes. “Two were entwined in some kind of sickening reptilian love embrace,” he wrote. “They died that way. It made me happy.”

I know. We’re not supposed to voice such antiquated notions. They say rattlesnakes in parts of the West are becoming rare after a century of wanton killing. But still.

Another respondent, Reed Branson, quoted a herpetologist who said that moccasins aren’t as aggressive as people think, that they’re basically slow to escape and so, end up standing their ground. I’m not so sure. I've seen moccasins strike at a stick many times, and though I once came upon one that did flee from me, it raised its head and the first foot and a half or so of its body off the ground AS IT RAN, and simultaneously pivoted its head back at me from side to side, mouth open to reveal the cottony inside that gives cottonmouths their name, as if to say, “Come after me, mofo!”

Of course, we’re talking about fear, on both ends, which is almost always a bad combination. Most people who are bitten by snakes get bitten while trying to kill them. For example, I read a news article about a guy who was burning brush on his farm who encountered a rattlesnake, went to get his gun to kill it, then somehow tripped and shot himself in the leg. After he hit the ground the snake bit him. He also suffered severe burns as he crawled away through the fire, which had gotten out of control while he was focused on the snake. I am not making this up. It was in the newspaper; there was a byline. Notably, the rattlesnake itself escaped.

I once encountered a rattlesnake in the road that had been run over by cars so many times that every part of it except the head and a few inches of its body were basically a part of the pavement. Yet when I came close, it opened its mouth threateningly, showing its fangs. I hated, and feared, that snake, too.

The very shape of a snake, the looping curves, the slithering motion, the violent strike – all evoke immediate loathing in most of us. It’s been theorized that our fear goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and the concept of original sin, which seems a bit of a stretch to me, for several reasons. Why, if we’ve incorporated the horror of expulsion so deeply in our psyches that we need to kick some relevant ass, do we focus exclusively on the snake? We should, by all rights, feel a revulsion for apples as well, since the apple was essentially an IED presented by the snake. Why don’t we get a chill down our spine when we walk through an orchard? But why, if it’s merely a logical evolutionary response, is our fear still so strong?

I think it goes back to our latent fear that in life there is always something evil underfoot. We have learned, both during our evolution and in our everyday life, that things can go terribly wrong very quickly, that the danger can come from anywhere, and that it can be hidden close by. It is natural that we would fear something that embodies all of that. Combine that fear with ignorance, which is itself part of the equation, and add a few wildly popular misconceptions, such as the myth of the water skier who fell and was killed by a nest of moccasins, and it’s all wrapped up for the snake.

I’ve never been bitten, but I’ve certainly experienced my share of snake horror. Once, while wading barefoot in a swamp, I felt something under one foot and looked down to see the largest moccasin I’ve ever encountered, writhing out from under me. Moccasins are easily identified by their thickness and coloration, even if you can’t see the evil-looking triangular head, and in a millisecond I realized I was standing on top of this one, apparently just behind the head, which alone could explain why I hadn’t already been bitten. The next moment I was being levitated through the air. I landed perhaps 15 feet away. After catching my breath, my friend and I naturally antagonized the snake with a long stick.

A few years later, in that same swamp, when a friend and I were seining for fish and other aquatic creatures to put in our aquarium, we noticed first one, then two, and eventually, perhaps 20 harmless yet very large diamond-back water snakes swimming past. We were pleased to note that they were not in the least bit interested in us, and as a result we did not fear them. We went about our respective endeavors. More recently, a six-foot-long rat snake appeared on my back porch, and was so unperturbed by my presence that I left it alone until it eventually moved on. My point is, I don’t think it’s just about snakes -- it’s about poisonous snakes, and over the millennia, the feeling has doubtless grown mutual.

Fear of snakes, poisonous or otherwise, like every other fear, feeds on lack of knowledge, which is why they have those nature days at the local natural science museum where school children are allowed to handle docile and beautiful corn snakes. There is no sense in fearing a corn snake, nor in killing a snake whose only goal in life is to eat your mice. Fear is a useful tool, but it should be used judiciously.

I have observed the results of coupling fear with ignorance. I have a cabin on my place that I rent out, and for 20 years it has been infrequently visited by what is no doubt a succession of rat snakes. I can’t find where the snake gets in (only one at a time appears to hold franchise to the domain), but I have lost tenants because of it, and who can blame them? Even a “good” snake is bad when it’s inside. Once I rented the cabin to a herpetologist who actually looked forward to the appearance of the rat snake. It never came, but one night he phoned to say he’d been out at the pond looking for critters with his headlamp, and had found a small cottonmouth, and would I mind if he caught it and added it to the collection of the museum where he worked? Have at it, I said. One less water moccasin in my world. Educated though I be regarding snakes, my fear of moccasins has never abated.

My grandparents had a hunting camp along Steele Bayou in the Delta, and the woods there were home to five of the six venomous snakes that inhabit Mississippi – three kinds of rattlers, copperheads and moccasins, all in abundance. A friend of theirs had once abandoned the boat from which he was fishing to swim ashore after several snakes slithered out of his live fish-well. I have also heard of fishermen shooting holes in the bottoms of their boats when moccasins dropped from overhanging limbs. I understand how this could happen. Fear is not always rational. In fact, it seldom is. Fear and reason originate from different parts of the brain entirely, and, like an emergency vehicle, fear has the right of way. This is not to say fear cannot be informed by reason, but you’ve got to do the educating before the snake appears on the trail.

Once, two days before Christmas, one of my dogs got bitten by a moccasin. I took him to the vet for antibiotics, only to get a call from someone back at the house saying another of my dogs had been bitten. Before the second one arrived a third had been bitten, too. Later, I figured out how it happened. The dogs were terrified of moccasins, after one had been bitten a year before, and so they became obsessed with them, with the result that they actually hunted for them and ganged up on them, and ended up playing the tug of war of death with them. Sooner or later, everyone got the bad end. The dogs learned from their mistakes, though, and eventually got pretty good at killing moccasins. I can now recognize the “moccasin bark.” But when I hear it and look up to see one of them slinging a moccasin wildly by the tail (they can actually kill them this way), I beat a hasty retreat. I don’t even want to be around.

In our vast retinue of snake mythology, one story has it that Cleopatra committed suicide by holding an asp to her breast so that it could inflict its fatal bite. Historians now tell us this is a myth; it didn’t really happen that way. What actually happened was probably more like this: After the asp was brought to her, Cleopatra took one look at it and said, “Bring me some, I don’t know… hemlock.”

Sometimes fear is worse than death. So use it wisely -- don’t waste it on the corn snake. Save it for the moccasin slithering menacingly down the trail, or hiding beneath a boat, or doing whatever it may ever deign to do, wherever it may ever think to go. 

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