Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Friends Without Shoulders

Because I have occasionally referred to snakes as "friends without shoulders" some people have apparently gotten the impression that I think of snakes as...well, friends.

Just because our family room is replete with snakey things: three Ikea stuffed pythons, a pottery wall-hanging sidewinder, a black wooden undulating snake decorated with round reflectors and fake pearls, and "Hissy" the blue Beanie Baby snake, one might get the impression the scaly reptiles are my buddies.


Actually I don't like snakes. Never have. Probably never will. It's just the way I feel.

Growing up in an urban New England factory town, as a member of a solidly indoor family, reptiles were certainly never an an issue during my formative years.

But, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with them, as I grew older and began to venture out into the natural world I sometimes experienced a feeling of snake-induced insecurity when I looked into the underbrush around the area where I was walking. This fear kept me largely off the hiking trails until I met, dated and married Marsha - someone without the same dread, and someone who I would follow pretty much anywhere.

Which one day brought me face to face with this sign at the beginning of a nature trail in Coastal North Carolina:
We don't think of them as snakes
We think of them as friends without shoulders.

Huh? I mean I guess I got their point - this was a wildlife center, dedicated to teaching us about the interactions between plants, animals and the environment. And in the overall ecology of things snakes do perform many useful, maybe even good things. But a friend? You hang out with friends. Have them over for drinks and a barbecue. Occasionally even touch them. Shoulderless - definitely! Friends - never!

Then we began to travel to the Southwest - northern New Mexico, West Texas and central and upper Arizona. The good news is that there was no underbrush. The bad news was that here there really were rattlesnakes.

Outside of Albuquerque we hiked at Petroglyph National Monument after reading a sign cautioning us against poisonous snakes hiding in the rocks. Fortunately on this walk we were preceded by a pack of free-range Cub Scouts whom we assumed would prove to be a tastier treat for the reptiles than two aging office-worker Easterners.

In Marfa Texas, while staying on the grounds of the Chinati Art Foundation, we learned that the rattlers sometimes liked to sleep overnight on the porches and steps of the housing units - in other words exactly where we were living . Later we heard from our son about a woman at Chinati who advised him to always carry a cat to toss as an offering should a snake present itself.

In the town of Lajitas, in the Big Bend part of Texas, one of the locals told us how he liked to walk at midnight on the runways at the local airport because then the snakes were not around.

And all throughout the southwest we were reminded by signs and verbal warnings to double-check a rock before we put our hand on it - particularly on cool sunny days when the snakes like to sleep outside and warm themselves.

After our first southwest trip I gave Marsha a snakebite kit with a "First Aid Pump" that provides "painless first aid extraction for snake and insect bites" - something that seems, to us, preferable to the old fashioned "slit, suck and spit" method. In thirteen years of desert hiking we've seen but two snakes - and neither one clearly enough to know whether we should have been afraid or not.

Outside of Albuquerque is ten thousand foot high Sandia Peak. Along the side of that mountain, near the top, is a barely one-person-wide hiking trail. On one of our trips along that trail Marsha, who was leading, was suddenly cut off by a fast-moving, slithering something. With no room to step sideways, and uncertain of the footing for jumping back , she simply stopped and let the unidentified snake wriggle in front of her. And then, since we were much closer to the end than the beginning of the trail, continued on.

Another time in Big Bend National Park we found a long-abandoned natural hot spring spa complete with crumbling bathhouses and deteriorating manmade tubs. As we took in the scene, a long dark object glided across the sunlit ground and slid into one of the baths. We decided not to "take the waters" that day.

But an indoor classroom session at an Elderhostel in Apache Junction Arizona may have been our most memorable snake experience. The topic was "Venomous and Poisonous Critters of the Desert", or something like that. And the speaker brought with him various jars and aquaria filled with his subject matter.

We learned what to do when you come upon a snake in the desert . He called it the four S'es, which I may not be quoting exactly but you'll get the idea:
Stop (self evident)
Scan (see the snake and check the surrounding area for other snakes)
Step back (presumably into a safe area that you have just scanned)

When he came to the part of his talk where he would have shown us a rattlesnake the speaker paused and explained to us why he did not have one with him. Nor would he ever again. It seems he and his brother had grown up searching for and capturing snakes of all kinds. His brother had been bitten several times with no ill effects whatsoever - not allergic. Our speaker had never been even nicked by a pair of fangs.

Until one day when he was giving this very talk to another group, and the sample rattlesnake just up and bit him. Thinking not too much of it, he completed his talk without letting on that he had been bitten and then drove himself to the hospital. By the time he got there, ninety or so minutes later, the area around the bite had swollen up to twice its normal size and had turned a deep bluish-green. He had pictures. He also had other photos that showed the further effects of the venom. They were not pretty.

He was saved by anti-venoms and told by the doctors that if he were ever bitten again he would just die - that was all there was to it.

Now maybe some of you have friends like that - but not me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hate snakes. As a boy, I used to round up our cows every afternoon. Oftentimes I'd encounter a puff adder or a nasty black snake that would scare the bejesus out of me. Neither were poisonous, but I still disliked coming upon them. Even as an adult, when once attending a showing of various, harmless snakes, I refused to touch them, while watching ten year old children, completely unafraid, wrap the creatures around their shoulders.