The Necessity of Snakes

The following essay, written in November 2007 for Don Snow’s Intro to Environmental Literature course at Whitman College, features my first attempt at nature writing.  (Beginner’s luck).  Four years have passed; the questions remain.

The Necessity of Snakes

There are things that I am afraid of, things that deeply worry me, and things that I am wholly and inexplicably phobic of. Perhaps it is due to the peaceful, blessed quality of my life that tensions small or significant stand out in relief.  When I was eleven or so my sister and I were featured in a “Back to School” photo shoot for an ad in the local paper.  The photographer dressed us in nostalgic attire and from our small hands we swung stuffed animals and tin lunchboxes in the drying green of the southern Oregonian midsummer.  We acted like girlish bosom friends, strolling arm in arm down the potholed road on my mother’s flower farm.  Then the photographer handed me – older and supposedly braver, with cropped hair and overalls – an enormous toad, two oafish handfuls of flesh in every way like algae.  Or rather, she tried.  I gave warning to not dare attempt it and let bloody murder escape shrilly in protest.  So my sister accepted the poor creature, who, in the confusion, leapt powerfully (and with no small terror in its heart, I’m sure) forever into the thick blackberry brambles that line the property.

Amphibians invoke but mere jitters next to my black-out terror of snakes, as integral as the marrow of my bones where that fear resides.  I cannot remember a time that even the thought of those cool, sinuous creatures did not stop my breath.  People who live free of phobias cannot pretend to understand how incapacitated they render their victims, nor the frustration of being overpowered by a fear defined by its absurdity.  It is socially acceptable to scream about spiders, yet I’m often their champions under the feet of would-be murderers. But even at twenty, the vision of serpents haunts my rest like it froze me as a child, tightly sealed and suffocating in the sheets that I depended on as a shield against the reptiles of my imagination night after infernally hot August night.  

This terror has preserved colorfully clear many aging memories.  As soon as I learned of miraculous snake-free countries like New Zealand I announced my future Kiwi citizenship.  Running away was indeed the best plan.  On the farm when I was too young to be left at home alone, I began the practice of stomping purposefully to send warnings of my coming through the thistles and even on that small patch of treasured grass, violently green and lush on which my sister and I would read away the long days.  Bigger worries have eventually shaped my life, worries in a way just as invisible as those silent, skittish ropes in the grass.  I have no intention of curing my phobia, even if it is occasionally restrictive.  But I have chosen to live fully acknowledging my greatest fears out of respect for the threatened world I love.  This is my only hope for finding purpose and peace.    

Obsessions and passionate convictions have seated themselves comfortably into the armchairs that recline into the corners of my mind.  I allow that they may stay, for I approve of the fiery action they direct from privileged thrones they alone may fill.  Once, I lost those elements of purpose that I had so heavily relied on for self-identity. I wondered fiercely and terribly why I was even alive; I seemed a vesicle full of others’ truths and none my own making. That era was but one color: death and life, dark nights and cheerless days, all black.  I wonder then, if a snake had crossed my path, if I would have even flinched.  And that is a scary thought.

In that depressed era I was fearless, yes: unnaturally so, like an alien, inhuman – for a fear of loss implies a love of something.  Snakelike, I slid into recluse.  Nature’s mysterious influence in the human body quarantined me into a lonely hibernation.  The snow fell and I was passionless; past lives in which I furiously scolded the lazy and apathetic ran like amusing scripts for some cynical TV show.  I scoffed at that absurd past self, brimming over with righteousness and conviction, for now I knew the sad reality of the hollow world.   My mother’s sharp sadness at my unreactive state could not permeate the thick cloud of my indifference; the scent of fresh ozone rising from the park’s loamy path I walked in winter spoke of no mysteries or sacred promise.  Palms pressed upon puzzle bark sheathing the endlessly tall Ponderosa pine by the creek, for once my core did not resonate with her fibrous base notes.  

Attempting to extend a lifeline of memory into the murky depths of my confusion, my mother recounted tales of my youngest self.  At five years old, she told me, I asked if it was man’s denigration of the Earth that caused the moon to rise so strangely early in the afternoon, while the sun was still up!  Not the moon, I prayed, how could we have ruined even her?  That little worried person loved soaking storms for the chance to run barefoot into the street in nearly pagan worship of the glory and fullness of Weather.  She asked Santa Clause for donations to Greenpeace and licked the gritty, wet driveway to taste the smell of new-fallen rain.  For some reason, my spiritual and emotional coming of age was a profound doubting of that little person, spiraling out of control into a headlong dive for the bottom.  Some brilliant luck prevented me from smashing against that surface I had once so curiously and lovingly explored.

Healed, I have seen some fears evaporate like fog to reveal the deeper connections beneath.  This set of eyes must be one of the ironically dichotomous gifts of adulthood.  Now as I worry for the future I allow hope, however unreasonable, to illuminate my heart with humanitarian good cheer.  I have learned to battle the fear for the Nature who so graciously healed me in her forested mountains by living a life of purpose in each moment.  I have regained and embraced the obsessive indignation at reckless mankind of my childhood in the heartbreak of our generation, the upside-down chaos of climate change.  

If it is human to fear change, no wonder that people do not ask questions with terrible answers at every turn. What if we are the last young people to experience local weather in predictable patterns, to live a life which cycles about in the rhythmic stability of equal seasons?  To have skied each Oregonian winter, to have splashed in unfettered watershed creeks in the cool of the summer pines?  To know the reality of option values in the frozen land of polar bears we were raised on in storybooks?  The urgent response these answers demand has become my raison d’être.  If not, another tragic aspect of this endangered, imperfect, beautiful world would have reigned over the strange hierarchy of my mind.  For in my desire to reign over the power of my fears I am quintessentially human, not heroic.

The snakes may keep on slithering and I’ll run desperately in the opposite direction, as I always have – who knows, we might need them to cull the future infestation of rats uniquely blessed by the warming world.  I have never wished the death of a snake out of paralyzing fear, for it would be tantamount to the mass extinction of our time by ignorance and anthropocentricism.  For my phobia I may be sissy, but I am not a coward.  The very nature of Nature is changing, and faster with every headline and newborn consumer.  I count myself rightly among the “privileged few” for countless reasons, perhaps most importantly in that I am alive during that oft-quoted “window of opportunity” before the runaway effect of feedback loops and irreversible global change spells extinction of the life-supports that sustain us, too.  

I have secretly suspected that my little sister, who so bravely held that grotesque frog, is afraid of climate change to the point of apathy. “Too scary,” I can hear in her voice when I try to relate the latest news, and suddenly she has to go.  She’ll likely vote for the greenest candidate, and she probably nags her friends to recycle, every once in a while.  But I wonder what defines my life in environmental terms and hers in others.  

Everyone fears.  How we walk into that dark space defines who we will become.

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