Encounters of Unusual Size

Today marks the second time in my life I’ve been struck at by a venomous snake. Not my favorite thing in the world, truly. Heart races, screaming ensues, scrambling for safety, and it takes about an hour for the adrenaline to clear fully out of my system.

This time, I was walking along a creek in a remote, heavily wooded area. The kids were jumping from rock to rock ahead of me, Carey behind. I stepped down from one rock to another, and saw her out of my peripheral vision. Brown adult with distinctive markings, coming toward me. In my recollection, she was enormous. Carey says she was moderately sized. Obviously, he wasn’t seeing clearly.

(This picture is NOT of the actual snake. It’s from Wikimedia images by Steve Karg. I could not find an adequately scary picture.)

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Now, in this part of the Carolinas, the only venomous snakes around are pit vipers, all of which have diamond-shaped heads. You better believe I sized up the shape of her head in a big hurry. Very, very diamond-shaped.

I’m pretty proud of the fact that the first thing I did, when I realized this giant, spitting, striking snake with the diamond-shaped head was lunging toward me, was to yell at the kids to keep going, up the bank and AWAY from me (the snake was between us).

As soon as I saw that they were splashing away up the bank, I ran. A salamander skittered out of my way and I interpreted it as a baby snake and ran further. I might have squealed a little.

I survived. So did the kids and Carey, who continues to insist that the GIANT snake was actually a fairly ordinary, potentially even sub-adult specimen. He wasn’t as close to the behemoth as I was AND he wears glasses. I’m just sayin.

The first time a venomous snake struck at me, I was walking the dog on a wet night and nearly stepped on it (it, too, was HUGE. I am struck at exclusively by GARGANTUAN snakes, despite what you may hear from unreliable and/or traitorous sources). I backed away in a panic, and asked a neighbor to drive me home so as to avoid further contact.

I know it’s a weird quirk, but I’m not overly fond of being struck at by venomous snakes. Just a thing I have.

But here’s the other thing I have: Reason. Also this thing: Compassion.

It’s Spring and the snakes are out in force. I see pictures of them all over my Facebook feed and it seems inevitable that every update containing a snake must also contain comments saying things like “the only good snake is a dead snake.”

When actually, most snakes are really, really good. Rodent population control is their primary economic benefit, and it’s estimated to be significant.

And most of them are non-venomous. Some of the non-venomous sort eat the venomous sort. Win-win.

But what about those venomous snakes? My first instinct following this second-ever incident with Reptiles of Unusual Size was to say: Eradicate them. Dangerous. My kids could have died. I could have lost a leg AND lost an otherwise perfectly delightful afternoon.

My second instinct was to say: Kids, no more creek time. Not playing by the creek again. Ever. Come away. Let’s go somewhere else. I know, let’s play in the car. Yeah, in the car. It’ll be fun. And safe. Let’s just always play in the car, except when there’s not a grown-up around, and then let’s play in the house. In a padded room. With all potential snake entry points covered. Surrounded by snake poison.

Because getting struck at by a MASSIVE venomous snake = scary.

But here’s the reality. That big ole girl, that brown on brown fat booger, she was three feet from my leg. If she wanted to strike me, she would have. I’d be in the hospital, probably unconscious and doped with morphine. In fact, she could have struck the kids. Remember, they were ahead of me. THEY stirred her up–I was just lucky enough to be the one who finally pushed her over the edge into defense.

Defense. That’s all it was. She wanted us to leave her the heck alone. We big galumphing morons came into her home and disturbed her peace, and she just freakin wanted us gone.

We left. All the way up the bank, and as I scrambled I imagined that a snake was going to drop out of the overhanging branches at any moment and bite me in the neck, causing instant anaphylactic shock and shortly thereafter death. I believed that the same snake would also then chase down my children and kill each of them as well. And that it would enjoy it.

This is what Lenore Skenazy recently coined, ‘tragical thinking.’ It’s the imagining that Very Bad Things are bound to happen, as if by magic (get it–‘tragical’ ‘magical’?), if we let our guard down for one second. That, in fact, they are happening all the time to people who stopped guarding against them for just one second. It’s what therapists call “catastrophic thinking”–the idea that the worst possible scenario is actually a very likely one.

Therapists talk about it because it’s a very damaging way to think.

The truth is, in this instance, that most snakes, including all of the venomous varieties commonly found in our part of the world, prefer to simply be left alone. Actual venomous snake bites are a vanishingly small occurrence and the vast majority of those occur because some guy gets drunk and decides it would be fun to play with his personal stash of live snakes with his bare hands, as one does.

Even then, the vast majority of bites cause no lasting damage.

And isn’t this how it is with many of the fears we have for ourselves and, especially, our children? In our mind’s eye, the danger is so big, so scary, so enormous that we shrink back in terror. And if we should ever have a “close call” we interpret it as evidence that the danger is imminent, and that our only safe course is to put ourselves and our children into a protective cocoon to prevent anything like that ever happening again.

We put spongy material on every sharp corner they may encounter, and we tame their playgrounds to the point that they are no longer fun. We keep them indoors away from the dangers of the street, and keep them away from the stove because they might get burned.

And meanwhile, anxiety and depression, obesity and heart disease, illnesses we know are caused by and exacerbated by lack of exercise, lack of nature, *lack of risky play*–these illnesses continue to skyrocket among our youth.

Don’t be mistaken–these diseases are deadly. They are killing our children in record numbers.

But you know what’s not killing them: Venomous snakes. Strangers. Climbing trees, riding see-saws, walking to the store alone. In fact, I would argue, the fact that they are *not* doing those things *is* killing them.

I know it’s hard. I know snakes are creepy and the streets are scary and trees are tall.

And I also know that we can do hard things. I know that we can be brave. We can behave as though we see things as they really are (even when our tragical thinking gets the best of us, we can pretend). We can give our children the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong and free.

And so, because I try to practice what I preach, but mostly because I didn’t want to look like a big weeny, we headed back to the creek (after my heart rate returned more-or-less to normal). The kids galumphed along the stream bed for another half hour, jumping from rock to rock, splashing in pools, startling salamanders. One of the kids climbed a steep cliff that runs along the creek. He went all the way up, about forty feet, and then found his way down again. It was scary.

And it was beautiful.

And that dadgum snake was freakin huge, y’all.

Shut up, Carey.

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