Posted by: Banta | August 26, 2014

Snake Encounters

The air was still that Saturday. In the dappled early light, honey bees created a frenzied hum around the dill blossoms, Russian sage, and tall spikes of bee balm, their obvious favorite. Morning glories greeted me like happy children straddling the fence, clad in jewel tones of magenta, sky blue, opaline white, and purple quartz. A mug of tea in one hand, I had come to the garden to pick a few plump blueberries for my breakfast. Just last week, we had tossed squares of netting over the two-year old bushes, to keep the birds from picking off the ripening berries.

I stopped abruptly some ten feet from the lone blueberry bush we’d planted outside the fenced garden. A snake was coiled around the thin trunk, leaving the lower third of its brown-flecked body curled on the ground. It seemed tangled in the bird netting and did not move as I approached. More startled than afraid, I stood still for a moment, registering the scene. Then, without taking my eyes off the snake, I set the mug of tea down, pulled out my phone, and snapped as many photos as I dared. The snake remained motionless. I imagined it might be watching me, too. A minute passed, and another. We seemed suspended in a state of mutual curiosity.

Finally, with deliberate caution. I backed away, one step at a time, until I reached the flagstone path to the house. Inside I found a book about reptiles, and posted a photo on Facebook to ask for help identifying this snake. The book and my wilderness-wise friends confirmed it was a timber rattlesnake, quite poisonous, and advised me to keep my distance. But I couldn’t stay away. Like a rubbernecker riveted to the scene of a gruesome wreck, I made frequent trips to the garden to keep tabs on the rattler. By midday, black flies were circling, and I was ready to pronounce the snake dead by strangulation. But I was not ready to get close enough to take its pulse.

When Bruce got home at dusk, he jabbed the rattlesnake with a pitchfork to confirm it was dead, then cut it down – netting and all – and buried it in the woods. I thought that was the end of the snake tale.

Not so. The bird netting would have to be removed, but other projects took precedence, until a week later. I’d spent the morning replenishing soil in the raised beds, adding compost, and planting vegetable seedlings for the fall garden. Then another few hours clearing brush and brambles along the driveway. By late afternoon, I was bone tired, caked with dust, and ready for a shower. Just one last trip through the garden gate to return the shovel and clippers to the shed.

And there I saw her – a shiny black rat snake curled at the base of a blueberry bush, camouflaged by and hopelessly entangled in a wad of the black bird netting. Damn. Her tail twitched when I leaned in to investigate. She was still alive. What happened next was so instinctive I hardly know how to explain it. I called Bruce up from his woodshop, grabbed work gloves and scissors, and together we cut off the bundle of snake and netting and carried it to a patch of shade, where we set to work. Bruce held the snake’s head in one hand, and her slithering body in the other, calming her with his voice while I snipped at the netting. In many places the net was wound so tightly around her that her scaly skin bulged from the pressure. Every time she moved, she risked tightening the web of nooses further. I slipped the scissors under each thick plastic strand, taking great pains not to pierce her skin.

We were so engrossed in this delicate surgery that we lost all track of time. While black snakes have been known to hiss and bite when threatened, or emit a foul musky spray to ward off a predator, none of these things happened. She may have exhausted herself before I found her, in an effort to escape the netting. But all the while Bruce cradled her, she twitched only when the scissors pressed under the tightest bits of net to make a cut. She tracked our movements and intentions with a constant flicking of her black tongue. And with each snip of the scissors, she seemed to breathe a little easier.

Finally, impossibly, she was free. Bruce carried her to the edge of the woods and let her go. By the time he walked back up to the garden, I’d found two MORE black snakes tangled in two more wads of bird netting. How many times did we need to learn this lesson?

018Sadly, one of the two was already dead, but the other was very much alive. Not as thoroughly wound up in the net as the first hostage, this snake writhed and squirmed during the entire detangling procedure. But again, no hissing or aggression, nor any defensive musky spray. When we set her loose a few minutes later, it was with an odd mixof compassion, humility, and gratitude. And before the sun set, we took down the rest of the bird netting. By next summer, those blueberry bushes will provide enough berries for birds and humans to share.

I have no doubt that these snake encounters were about far more than bird netting. Indigenous peoples have great respect for the snake spirit animal, or snake totem. Snake lives close to the earth, and reminds us to stay grounded as we navigate change and transition. Snake energy invites an awakening of creativity, a heightened connection to the life force itself.

When a snake sheds her old skin, it is to make room for new growth. I want to shed my old skin, too – beliefs and habits I have outgrown, my ego attachment to having things go my way, personal narratives that no longer serve my own or the greater good. I want to walk barefoot on the earth, in that vulnerable new skin, open to the voices of all the life forms that co-exist with us here on this mountain – snakes, yes, and also bear, deer, gopher, mice, grasshoppers, slugs, hummingbirds, poke weed, brambles.

The snake encounters have taught me that if I am a willing student, my teachers are standing at the ready. Let the lessons begin.

 

 

 

 

 


Responses

  1. What a sacred and holy encounter, Banta. Kudos to you and Bruce for your attentiveness and care of the snakes.

    It reminds me of how on one of my pilgrimages to Ireland I learned a out the symbolism of snakes in Early Celtic Xianity, before Rome moved in and took over. They were seen as creatures to be revered, willing and able to teach we humans something about stepping out of the old in order to encounter the new.

    Thanks for the post! I bet those blueberries are good on your morning cereal!

  2. Thanks to the snakes for the lessons of life and to you and Bruce for walking lightly on the earth. With care…Bobbie

  3. Continuing gratitude for how you put words together into something so deeply meaningful. Especially loved the concluding paragraph on your own journey of transition. It’s a great time of life for us!

  4. Thank you, Banta! This is lovely and encouraging. I’ve been wondering the significance of the creatures most visibly present over here – snakes, spiders, and hornets/wasps. Flowers for bees didn’t come up well; maybe they are waiting for next year. Some of the spiders are big BW’s and will be treated to any early, final exit. One had set up shop on the outer underside of the top bar of the deck rail, totally hidden from the deck-side view. Will be using big guns as this is a resident I wish not to persist.

    Your worlds are so full and bountiful, and one cannot help but notice the welcoming and gratitude for all such abundance, whatever arises. Living proof of the correlation (to me, at least) between gratitude no matter what and the ever unveiling of rising manifestation.

    My way of checking in and saying, “Hi, neighbors!”

    Love, Rebecca


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