Encounters of Unusual Size 6


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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6 thoughts on “Encounters of Unusual Size

  • paula nichols

    the fact is that if you are bitten, you will suffer in any manner of ways. if you’re in an area known to have just recently let one go that your children are ir, they could be bitten. sorry as i am to say it poisonous snakes are better dead than left to be stepped on by your friend, children, pets.

    leave the rodents to the cats. cats will also kill snakes, poisonous or not. if i encounter a large poisonous reptile, I WILL KILL IT.BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.

    • Heather Post author

      Copperhead bites are awful. The pain has been described as akin to stepping on a live wire. The bite area turns purple and swells up, and the swelling spreads throughout the limb. The venom causes hemorrhaging throughout the affected tissues. The victim may begin vomiting and eventually become unconscious. Occasionally, tissue may turn necrotic and the use of the affected area may be lost. In the event of multiple bites in the facial region, death is possible.

      Unpleasant facts. Here are a few other facts.

      40% of snake bites occur while handling a pet. In a large percentage of these, the “victim” is a male under the age of 30 with a blood alcohol level of greater than .1%. “Hey, look what I can do!” The other 60% occur primarily when a snake is stepped on accidentally. 25% of these bites are “dry bites,” meaning that little or no venom is injected. Of the other 75%, almost none are fatal, even without medical treatment.

      In one study of 400 snake bites, only 2 were fatal and those two were due to multiple (3 or more) bites to the facial area. Fairly sure that didn’t happen just because there was a snake in the area. The number of people in the U.S. who have died by snake bite since 1900 are listed *by name* on a single Wikipedia entry. That’s more than *a century’s* data and it includes adults. The number of children among that already small number is so vanishingly small that no credible source even attempts to report on it separately.

      Compare that with the number of kids killed in auto accidents in just *one year.* It’s more than 9,000. Try multiplying that number by a century.

      You know what else kills kids? For children the ages of mine, the third leading cause of death in the United States is suicide. Do you know what causes suicide? Anxiety and depression. Do you know what causes anxiety and depression? Fear-mongering, lack of exercise, lack of exposure to nature, and lack of what one social scientist calls “risk play.” (Though there is a genetic component, it is highly influenced by these elements and can often be treated by putting exercise, nature, and risk play into the child’s life).

      Any child who has had a true outdoor adventure in the woods of the U.S. has almost undoubtedly been in striking distance of a venomous snake. A vanishingly small number of them have ever been struck. The fact that we *saw* the snake and didn’t kill it makes that snake no more dangerous than the many we undoubtedly passed without seeing.

      Insisting that we should not let the children play in the vicinity because we happened to encounter one is needless fear-mongering.

      Now. That having been said. We did move further down the creek, away from the territory the snake appeared to be defending. Likewise, if there’s a copperhead up under my house, I will have it removed. That’s my territory, and I’ll defend it (preferably by non-lethal means).

      But I won’t go tromping into another creature’s territory and destroy it on sight simply because it has the capability to inject venom. Nor will I keep my children indoors and away from the dangers of the great outdoors simply because there are risks involved.

      On the other hand, we did have to drive an hour and a half to get to this remote location. That drive really was dangerous. Maybe, to protect my children from those dangers, I should kill all the other cars on the road. By any means necessary.

  • Lisa

    Hehehe…You know how to tell a story! Hehehe…I agree with you completely. I’d never kill something that didn’t totally piss me off or injure my children. Most snakes are not dangerous at all. I’d do my best to avoid them and killing something because one perceives it as dangerous is well… it’s pretty fucking stupid. ;)

  • Aussiegirl78

    In Australia we have pretty much the worlds deadliest snakes, and lots of them. Some are aggressive, some aren’t. If you walk past a king brown and it takes offence it will go on the attack, Same with the taipan, western brown, and tiger snake. The death adder will sit there hiding and strike if any body part gets too close as it is a lazy bastard. So kids here are told that the snakes are dangerous and they will be bitten if not careful. The general rule is treat all snakes as deadly, because 9/10 times the ones they encounter here are.

    • Heather Post author

      Ahhhh! I’m so excited to have a comment from Australia. Hello! Hi!!!

      We were just talking about this the other day–pretty much any animal we have here, Australia has it but deadlier. :) If we were up against what you’re up against–or Black Mambas and some of the others in Africa–we might play a different tune!

      It’s all about weighing the genuine risk against the benefits. I’m grateful we live where the most aggressive venomous snake (the copperhead) is also the least toxic… and it’s not even *that* aggressive. There are some out in California that are both more toxic and more aggressive, and they’re still nothing to what you guys have!

      So, how do you weigh letting your kids get fresh air, exercise, nature–against the very real risk of truly deadly snakes?