Reub's journey

28 May 2009


We spotted this fellow on a recent walk. Some kind of garter snake?

Recently, when I was home in Wisconsin, I was on a run along the country road that lies behind my mother's house, when I sidestepped a snake, a beautiful snake ringed with rich browns and blacks. I realized that the snake wasn't moving, so I stopped for a closer look: this snake was newly dead, probably having sunned itself on one of the first really warm days, and then hit by a car. Its eyes were not yet dull, and every scale was perfectly laid on its body. My trusty field guide (a Golden Nature Guide from 1957) tells me it was most likely a Red King Snake: an elegant and useful creature. Why did I jump when I saw it?

That unfortunate experience of the Snake in the Garden of Eden must have started it all. I am going to try and get over it.

I really like this poem by D.H. Lawrence:


A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the
edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second-comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.

The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into
that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in
undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Nightmare, gourd sculpture by Michel Peyton. Check out the South African snake stories on this blog.


  1. A common question I ask Japanese students is, "Do you like snakes?," which they always interpret as "snacks." hmmm. Also, I miss your "listening to.../reading.../most recent snack..." sidebar. Ben and I make a plea for its return.

  2. I have a friend whose life dream is to have a reptile conservation center. Snakes are right at the top of her list of reptiles to conserve. I am going to pass this poem on to her.

    She has 5 snakes which she uses in her education programs, and I have learned so much from listeneing to her and watching these fellows. I had never thought of snakes as having individual personalities - but they do.

  3. I will confess a definite flush of adrenaline upon seeing a snake in the wild - they are foreign enough to me that they are frightening. But up close, tame, they fascinate me. The girls have no learned fear of snakes, and so love to hold them, let them twist into their hair, up their sleeves....oy!

  4. Chrystal, for a second there I thought you might say they had snakes for snacks (after all, they do love those eels). I thought my side bar was kind of self-absorbed in a twitterish sort of way, so I took it off before going out of town and never put it back. My snacks are embarrassing!

    Ah Mary, that is so cool to think that snakes have their own personalities. (But then, my super out-dated field guide recommends certain snakes over others as good for being pets, so I suppose even within breeds, some individuals might vary in terms of docility, etc.) Interesting.

    Debbie, if you learn how to subdue that flush of adrenaline, let me know. I don't understand why I startle! It is very neat that your girls are learning at an early age that snakes are not bad guys, generally speaking.

  5. Oh, btw Mary, I just realized that through some crazy keystrokes, probably when I added the pic at the end of the post, I also screwed up the last 2 stanzas of the poem. It is now,once again, correct, so I hope you forward THIS version of the poem to her. (It did make a weird kind of sense even when it was wrong, though!)

  6. Despite the fact that I am more appreciative of snakes' role in the universe and their individuality, I must confess that I too still jump when I see one unexpectedly. Perhaps, some things are hard wired. It is what we do next that counts. Although, it does seem that Debbie's girls seem to be by-passing the usual reaction which IS so cool.

  7. Thank you for the photo and the poem. I'd not read it before and enjoyed it very much.

    I recall with a shock discovering a recently hatched nest of garter snakes, while on a walk one day. My first impulse, like yours was to jump back at lest a foot in horror. But then, like Lawrence, I got very fascinated.

  8. The startled reaction must be somewhat hardwired for most of us. Barry's recollection of the nest of hatchlings reminded me that once, quite awhile ago, John and I came across the same thing. It was an amazing bunch of little wrigglers just off the path at Finley Wildlife Reserve, which is a nearby bird sanctuary. There were dozens of baby snakes! (They ere "racers" according to my Little Golden Nature Guide.)

  9. Love the sculpture - and have never seen a snake like that one anywhere east of the Mississippi!

  10. Oh wow. A western snake of some kind. I need to get a better field guide! Life With Dogs, your dogs are great. When I'm old maybe I'll get a greyhound. And a basset hound.

  11. Now that would be a fun combination! Believe it or not, the Greyhound would likely be the lazier of the two.

  12. Hi mom- i feel like i've been out in the sun for too long, and now that i'm in a room with four walls and a fan, reading your writing, all i want to do is cry. i love how much you love snakes, rats, dogs, birds, and horses. if i were to go with the 'cry' feeling i think i'd attract a crowd so i'll subdue it until i'm back in the sun, in which case i'll get dehydrated, but it'll be worth it. i love you.

  13. Aw Jessica, don't cry. It's just silly old me, nothing more. You should stay out of that hot African sun as much as possible though, ok? We'll see you soon!


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