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Snake Stories

Posted by: Editor on 6/2/2011
We are fortunate to have in our possession the Summer/Fall 2003 issue of Wild Earth: The Journal of the Wildlands Project. This issue, “Facing the Serpent, “is devoted to the subject of snakes, and includes essays by E. O. Wilson, Eileen Crist, Harry Greene, Reed Noss, Charles Bowden, and others. This wonderful journal unfortunately ceased publication after a 10-year run. An anthology of articles from the journal was subsequently published, but none of the essays on the “serpent” were included.

We particularly want to talk about E. O. Wilson’s essay “The Serpent,” which can be found in a slightly different form in his book Biophilia. The central thesis of his book is that living organisms have a desire to affiliate with each other. He suggests that our mental development cannot be complete without such affiliations. However, he writes at the beginning of his essay that “perhaps the most bizarre of the biophilic traits is awe and veneration of the serpent.” He proposes that our minds are predisposed to react emotionally to snakes and that that emotion keeps us safe, and causes us to create snake stories.

He tells his own snake story, how as a young boy-naturalist growing up in the panhandle of northern Florida and nearby Alabama he found his “Serpent,” an unusually large water moccasin (a poisonous pit viper) with whom he almost loses a battle. He placed his snake hook on the snake’s head in the appropriate fashion, placed one hand behind the eyes, and, dropping his hook, the other hand in the middle of the snake’s body, which is just about his own size. He thought he was in control, but the snake’s reaction surprises him. It opens its mouth wide, displaying prominent fangs, and ejects a fetid musk into the air. Wilson was just barely able to fling the snake away from him into the water before the fangs reached his hand.

He believes that over the two million years of our mental development we have incorporated an aversion/fascination response that he calls “the naturalist’s trance.” He sees this “trance” as being adaptive. In other words, the fascination/fear developed over time to keep you alive in an environment with poisonous snakes. We have to be fearful, but we have to be fascinated at the same time. The combination is adaptive.

It is true enough that in many cultures around the world snakes have been used as metaphors of power and knowledge. For example, in a renowned text on yoga, Sir John Woodroffe’s The Serpent Power—The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga, the term “serpent power” is used to name kundalini, a special energy released through meditation (which is a form of a trance). It is quite an honor that the legless, voiceless snake has been appropriated as a symbol of this transcendent power.

But perhaps even more powerful is the snake’s ability to evoke our capacity for storytelling. We have never met anyone who does not have a special snake story. Do people have special chipmunk stories? toad stories?  bat stories? No. Everyone, in our experience, has a snake story. Just recently we heard this true snake-on-a plane one from our neighbor. She was travelling on a plane to California. Next to her was a mother with young child about 5 or 6 years old, and on the other side of the child a college student. At one point our friend and the young child see a snake poking its head out from the college student’s jacket. She has apparently wrapped the snake around her stomach for the journey home. The child is excited, pokes her mother, and says “Mommy, Mommy, I see a snake.” The mother turns her head, sees nothing and berates the child for disturbing the passengers. Naturally the college student does not fess up. The child cries. That child may have developed a very interesting attitude about snakes through that encounter.

 One of the other essays in this issue of Wild Earth, by the nonfiction writer Charles Bowden, called “Snaketime,” is about his friendship with a western diamond rattlesnake that he names Beulah. She became a fixture on the porch of his ranch house near the Mexican border, sleeping all day near his reading chair. She eventually “slithered away from my life leaving no track except for undulating strands across my mind.” He is the perfect exemplar of E. O. Wilson’s point. Snake stories are the ones we carry around and can’t forget. Wilson believes the stories become part of our mental development—that they are affiliative, a form of love.
For information on Wild Earth, see The anthology is titled Wild Earth: Wild Ideas for a World Out of Balance, edited by Tom Butler (Milkweed Editions, 2002).
E. O. Wilson. Biophilia. Harvard University Press, 1984.

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