Monday, August 07, 2006

Sharing My World With Snakes

The other day I was weeding my tallgrass prairie restoration when I came upon a fair sized copperhead.

This poisonous snake is of the family Viperidae, subfamily Crotalinae (pit vipers), which in the United States also includes rattlesnakes and water moccasins. All inject proteolytic venom through hinged, recurved fangs.

Copperheads have a reputation for being somewhat irritable, perhaps because they tend to strike immediately when cornered or threatened. Mine, clearly not rattled*, was making a deliberate but unhurried departure from the area where I had apparently disturbed him.

From my standpoint, I felt fortunate that in this instance I was on a large mower, perched above a substantial mower deck; I could simply sit and watch. Normally, by contrast, my weeding time is mostly spent on hands and knees in the thick, tall vegetation. I've often wondered how I'd react if I came eyeball to eyeball, at ground level, with a venomous snake--or any snake, for that matter. It's bound to happen someday.

Indeed, I well know that my 120 acres is replete with rattlesnakes and copperheads, and that as I move about the place I'm frequently passing by and through their hangouts and hiding places. I realize that I actually see but a small fraction of the snakes with which I'm in fairly close contact. It can be an unsettling thought.

Because I have the same instinctive, biophobic reaction to snakes as most people*, it's difficult for me to regard them with warmth or affection. I therefore work on cultivating a mostly cerebral appreciation of their ecological importance and rightful presence. All the better if such mental exercise, sufficiently repeated, could eventually lead to some measure of emotional accommodation.

As I see it, I have three choices in how to conduct my life vis à vis snakes: I can retreat from the natural world to the protected domain of pavement, closely cut lawns, and central air conditioning. This is not, for me, a viable option. Or I can destroy whatever poisonous snakes I might encounter. To do so would be arrogant, hubristic, self-centered, ignorant, immature, and ultimately ineffectual. Or finally, having chosen to embrace nature, I can embrace her on her own terms, snakes and all.

*Pun intended.

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved