Thursday, June 14, 2012

Snakes Alive!

Twice, now, I’ve encountered Sierra Mountain Kingsnakes on my evening walk. These gorgeous, white-, black- and red-banded reptiles (Lampropeltis zonata multicincta) are usually nocturnal, so it’s quite a treat to see one during the day or evening hours. Kingsnakes eat lizards, small mammals, nestling birds, bird eggs, amphibians, and occasionally snakes, including its own species, so they are formidable hunters.

They are usually quite secretive, as well, and the one I saw yesterday evening was no exception. I encountered it climbing a sheer red clay road bank about 12 feet high. This bank is always a source on interest to me, as it is studded with holes of all sizes, like a critter apartment house. Apparently, that is what drew the snake’s interest, too. It slithered up the bank in graceful S-curves, defying gravity and stopping to thrust its head into any hole large enough to accommodate it, hunting for who knows whom.

When it came to the top of the bank, it stopped and waited. I had the feeling it was waiting for me to go away, so that it could hide itself. I turned away and took a few steps up the slope, then turned just in time to see it secret itself under an exposed root, where it was completely invisible. Actors and comedians know that timing is everything, and the same is true in sightings of wild things. They are all out there, doing the things that wild things do, but our perceptions of them are fleeting. They are expert at concealing themselves from our probing eyes and intellects and hurtful hands.

These two sightings, plus finding a baby rattlesnake dead on the road, remind me to be extra vigilant, now that the weather is warmer. The very first lesson I can remember my parents instilling, long before manners or chores, was always to look several steps ahead of me when I walked. This habit has saved me a number of times. You should see me levitate, when my foot is poised to fall on a coiled rattler! That one small act is a study in relativity!

Anyway, seeing these beautiful snakes brought to mind D. H. Lawrence’s poem, “Snake,” which I offer to you this morning as a meditation on the honoring of things that may seem, on the surface, less than desirable. Lest we, too, have a pettiness to expiate.


A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Taormina, 1923

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