I grew up in Memphis, during its dark years, when racism and hatred and prejudice were ways of everyday life. Schools and community centers were segregated. Poverty permeated the black neighborhoods. Even as a child, I didn’t ‘get’ it, didn’t understand why you should fear people because of the color of their skin. I tutored reading in the ghetto schools and taught swimming in the low-income community centers during the summer, trying to level the playing field in my own small way.
I hated Memphis, which makes me prejudiced, I suppose. I hated Memphis for its utter disregard of human and civil rights. I lived there when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, race riots abounded, and segregation was rampant. I left as soon as I could.
Prejudice lies against people of different colors, sexual orientation, ethnicities. Prejudice invades the non-human kingdom, too. How much killing has been done in the name of ‘erasing predators’ like a dirty chalkboard or ‘harvesting wildlife’ like a corn crop? Snakes and wolves, both of which enchant me, bear the bitter bulk of human prejudice. Perhaps examining our prejudices toward snakes could shed light on our human prejudices.
A vivid memory from childhood involves my mom, a party, some smart-aleck kids, and a snake in east Tennessee. We were at a friend’s house, it was dark, and a kid brought a snake up to my mom. Expecting her to scream or show fear, the kid was suitably impressed when she touched the snake and admired it. Trick tripped up! I remember being stunned that my mother could so surprise me.
After college I lived in a group house in Nashville with three other women. One of them had a friend with a young son Chris, who loved snakes (Chris is now a 40-something herpetologist somewhere). Our newly found ‘independent women pride’ did not allow us to decline the many offers of holding Chris’s latest acquisition. He taught us a lot about snakes, and I grew to like them.
When I was in law school in Albuquerque, we used to housesit for a professor. He and his wife had chickens, dogs, cats and a 6′ python. The chickens would attack your knees with spirited pecking; the cat threw up under the sofa; the dogs jumped and shed on you. But the snake Venom curled around your arm for a long time and watched TV with you.
We have encountered several snakes while hiking, but they’ve never harmed us, even the couple of rattlesnakes we scared up in the desert.
Last week our neighbors across the street called in a frantic panic. “There’s a SNAKE on our front porch! We’ve lived here 54 years and NEVER seen a SNAKE in the neighborhood. We don’t know what to do; we want to kill it.”
“Don’t kill the snake,” I said. “We like snakes.”
Mark and I went over and observed our neighbor sweeping a 3′ bull snake with a large broom. It slithered and zigzagged madly, trying to slide out of harm’s way. On impulse, Mark reached down and picked the snake up quickly, holding him behind the head and down the body. The snake curled around his arm and hung out while we discussed what to do with him. Our neighbors will probably never look at us quite the same again. We handled the slimy, scaly serpent of satan.
But snakes aren’t slimy; they’re sleek and cool. They’re sinuous and powerful. They crave warmth, not affection. This bull snake didn’t hiss or strike, although we’ve heard some of them pack a mighty bite. Also known as gopher snakes, bull snakes are harmless. They eat rodents and smaller snakes. Think of them as cannibalistic cats. Some of them are docile, some mean, kind of like humans. All are protective of their young. When they’re scared, they pretend to be a rattlesnake and shake their silent tail.
Because dark was coming, we took the bull snake inside. The dog didn’t seem to be able to smell the snake. He showed no interest. We called around the neighborhood to see if anyone had lost a pet snake. No missing snakes reported. We put him in a pillowcase, researched the web to confirm identity, and decided to release him to the wilds the next morn.
We hiked up the Embudo Trail a ways with our pillowcase package, picked a sunny, rocky, wild spot. I opened the pillowcase, removed the snake, and off he slid. We were standing right beside him and couldn’t see him. We wished him a long and safe life and returned to our urban world.
The universe rewarded us that afternoon with an unexpected email about a used popup camper for sale. We had been looking for two years. We bought it. If someone asks me about the day of the snake, I will simply say, “it was charmed.”