Last Sunday morning, a soft gentle sunny day, so typical of this time of year around here, I was confronted by a snake. “Was it a big one”? You may ask. Every snake who surprises you is big. This one was.
Stepping outside my studio for a breath of fresh air, there it was, basking its magical geometry in the mid-morning sun only just outside my door.
First reaction: “Kill!” I didn’t though.
Why, I wondered, is our first reaction always to kill this magnificent beast? This symbol of the creative spirit. This unfairly cast character in Adam and Eve’s play. This most exquisitely patterned primordial piece of living rope. This silent slitherer.
Is this reaction built into our genes? Is it the aggressive side of my male nature? Or is it fear? Blind fear. As in not being able to see. Not being able to understand.
I don’t think it is built into my genes. I come from a country without a history of snakes and, as far as I know, it never had any unless we consider the ones attached to the side of petrol bowsers.
The Adam and Eve sneaky seducer comes to mind but only as a childhood story and as that, it may be even stronger than fiction.
I am not by nature aggressive and there was nothing to defend. I wasn’t afraid of it in any way. A little wary maybe, but not afraid.
We fear things mainly because we don’t understand them. Politicians know that. It is a powerful tool in their arsenal. Witness the politics of fear employed by the ancient Menzies regime, in relation to the yellow hordes. Or, a more recent example, such as Pauline H., in relation to everything else.
In my case ‘Fear’ would have to apply to the meeting with the snake. Fear in relation to failing to understand. I don’t know the particular ways of this marvelous mover. All I know about snakes are the indoctrinated and scary stories, whether they are from the biblical times of my childhood and therefore very strong, or more recent from anyone else, real or made up.
That is another consideration. Most stories based on fear are not only exaggerated, but also largely made up. In relation to snake stories, that would have to be the case.
I slow stepped back inside my studio to consider all this and, after considering, decided to try and understand. To try and learn about the snake. After all, it was only early spring and I had a long snake season yet to come.
I have stated that ‘Learning is the best healer’ in this column before.
First, I re-looked at my ‘snake history’. I started my life in Australia at Bonegilla, where, on the second day after arriving, the authorities scared us with horror stories about snakes and spiders. Following this my first job was on a farm in NSW. It was hot and there were many snakes. I was taught how to kill them. Effectively. Next I moved to the city of churches, Adelaide. The only snakes I had to watch out for there were of an entirely different kind. After a short stint in the city, for my education, I returned to the country, to the Flinders Ranges. There, on the very day I moved into an old farm house, I found a snake moving in at the same address. I didn’t ask its name, nor did I introduce myself. I killed it. Afterwards I wondered why that made me feel awful.
Many years have past and a lot has happened. I have learned a great deal and one aspect of this learning has been ‘tolerance’.
Since moving into the forest locally, I have hardly ever seen any snakes. Yet there are plenty around. Maybe I don’t give them any attention. I considered our collective arrogance summed up in the idea: “There is an animal. It doesn’t suit me. BANG. Kill it.”
It begs the question, doesn’t any animal have as much right to live on this patch as we have. Probably more so. It has been here much, much longer. What is it with this white man attitude? I know the problem with most animals is that they don’t understand that they need to claim their bit of real estate by going to the Council to obtain their claim with the proper documents, just like us superior beings. Then they would be able to do what they liked. Shoot things, poison stuff, cut down trees, the whole catas-trophy. Trophy?
After these thoughts ran through my head, I still had to deal with the snake. My ‘concept’ of snake, which is different to a real one. I took off my glasses labelled ‘Fear’ and sat down near the snake. I talked to it. I explained that we could live together but that there were certain rules. Easy. I sat and talked to it quietly for a long time. I was able to get quite close. There was no reason for it to attack me nor for me to kill it. In reality there hardly ever is. I have shown it the respect it deserves and now we will work on sharing this space, on living together.
“Silly Bugger” a neighbour said. ‘Blind fear’ I answered.
P.S. In relation to our connection with animals, here is a special one. For the last 3-4 years I have had a large male kangaroo (kicked out of his mob) visiting on hot days by finding a cool place under the house. I could get quite close to it and would make sure there was always a bowl of water. Recently I had a knock on the door and when I opened it there sat the old roo. It stayed for a while and moved off. I haven’t seen it since. I have this feeling that he came to say goodbye.
Petrus Spronk is a local artist and philosopher who contributes a regular column to The Wombat Post.