I’m alone in the passenger seat of a parked car when I see a huge black serpent with a cobra-like head hovering above my side window. Horrified, I stare at its cold green eyes, vacant and unblinking. I’m wondering whether I should just hold very still or fish around for the keys to start the car and pull away. Then I notice the door on the back passenger side of the car is wide open. Will the snake slink away or enter the car at some random moment, or wait until I make a move before it finds a way to strike? I’m paralyzed, frozen in time and place, until at last I awaken to recognize this is just a scary dream. Shortly thereafter I concluded that the black serpent dream likely represented my post-divorce existential angst. The dream also obliged me to recall numerous close encounters I have had with real ophidian reptiles, commonly known as snakes.
For most people snakes are like microbes. You know they are there, but you don’t usually think about them until you are required to examine or contend with them. Throughout my life it has been my lot to encounter the hissing, rattling, slithering, and posturing of an assortment of snakes, mostly not of the metaphoric variety. Some of my snake capers have simply been delivered by the particular environs I have inhabited over my lifetime: mountains, riverbanks, and the jungle tropics.
In the 1950s I spent my early childhood in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. We lived in a shack near the Licking River where, along with the tadpoles and dragonflies, water snakes and garter snakes abounded. There are plenty of venomous snakes in Kentucky, such as cottonmouths and rattlers, but I was mostly exposed to the more benign varieties. Snakes are partial to eggs, so harmless black snakes sometimes foraged in the fecund warmth of my cousin’s henhouse or they could be spotted curled up in Papaw’s pigsty, or they simply thrived in the cornfields in a quest for mice or frogs, their primary dietary entrees. In those days it was not unusual for someone to fetch a neighbor fellow to remove a snake from the woodpile, the shed, the outhouse, or the kitchen. Almost every household in Kentucky had a shotgun but snakes were usually managed with brooms or shovels, not guns. (Despite the hillbilly stereotypes, guns were typically employed to scare off vermin or to slaughter hogs rather than wielded to protect against snakes or feuding kin.) In the 1950s the ritual to demonstrate the human conquering of snakes, dead or alive, was for the victor to march around grinning with the quarry in tow laid out across both arms or wrapped around his neck.
Growing up I was not terribly afraid of snakes; it was just my preference to detect or admire them from afar for their colorful or camouflaged designs, their darting little tongues and their squirming litters. When I was about four years old my cousin William put a garter snake down the back of my shirt while we were playing near the river. I remember shaking it out and being more offended by the indignity than I was scared of the creature.
Snakes, like grumpy people, prefer to be left alone, but if you intrude they will definitely bite you. Even garter snakes have jagged little teeth that saw and can feel like sharp pin pricks. My brother David reports that our Mother once spotted a snake trespassing in her beloved garden and chopped at it with a hoe. Usually, though, Mom instructed us not to bother with snakes because snakes generally prefer to avoid you more than you want to tangle with them. Apparently Mom was more disturbed by, and wary of, snakes of the human variety. She was part of the Southern Democrat wing of the family, so until I could read I thought the name of the other party was the one she repeatedly alluded to in run-on vernacular as “Republicansnakes.” She did, however, impart to me numerous tales from her own snake-infested childhood.The most enthralling tales were of tent revival meetings where the preacher and selected congregants reached into a box to pick up a poisonous snake to demonstrate their great faith and sanctity of spirit. Mom said that the mother of a neighbor family died when she was bitten by one of the snakes. The preacher implied that the woman died because she lacked faith and may have been possessed by demons. My mother, who was baptized in the river and read the Bible daily, didn’t buy the preacher’s assessment. Like many ordinary mountain people, Mom was smart and not terribly gullible.
When my family moved to New Jersey for my grade school years, we lived near a flourishing brook (a tributary of the Raritan River) and just across from some woodlands rife with small wildlife, including an assortment of water snakes and eels. The most treacherous creature that slinked along the riverbank was the venomous copperhead snake that we children endlessly stalked and tried, in great bravado, to capture or kill. We feigned that we knew how to recognize and handle poisonous snakes. The head of a poisonous snake, we apprised each other, is triangular and fat, because of the glands that contain the venom. We somberly briefed one another to identify dangerous snakes by their evil slit eyes, as opposed to round friendly eyes. (I vaguely wondered how you got close enough to inspect the eyes, but that was a trivial point in childhood.) We also understood that water snakes are known to be venomous if they swim with their bodies above the surface. I preferred to avoid water snakes in general, but was actually more unnerved by imagining tiny snakes beneath the surface brushing against me than by the thought of a water moccasin whizzing by.
On the rare occasions when one of our gaggles of kids actually captured a snake alive, the casual directive was to grab the snake by the head just below the jaws so that when it whips around it can’t inflict a bite. (Not rocket science, but also not particularly good advice to the uninitiated.) Mostly, though, before we handled the snake, poisonous or not, one of us had already killed or maimed it with rocks or sticks. (I pity the poor snakes, having to contend with such ruthless feral children.) After exhibiting our bravery and prowess, we tossed the living, or likely dead, snake back into the brook where we swam, waded and fished, depending upon the season or the water levels.
As I grew up I learned that in western cultures snakes often represent danger or sexuality or some variation thereof. Such is not the case in Asia, where snakes are highly respected and even considered magical harbingers of good luck, whether they appear in the flesh or in dreams or myths. Snakes may also represent fertility or healing or protection of the highest order. When I became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand in the late 1960s, I got a whole new slant on snakes, as well as most other aspects of ordinary life. In Thailand, mythical hooded serpents called Nagas are sculptural and architectural features at most temples and in artistic renderings. Images of these single or many-headed cobra-like snakes reflect safeguarding of the Buddha, while legends hold that a gigantic mystical Naga inhabits the mighty Mekong, the mother of all rivers in Southeast Asia.
During our Peace Corps Thailand training we were warned to examine our shoes for any small snakes (like Pit Vipers) that may have decided to take refuge there overnight. Snakebite kits were not, however, standard issue for volunteers in Thailand, as they likely were for volunteers in Africa. Peace Corps volunteers in Africa were thoroughly briefed about a variety of snakes, including the storied Black Mamba snake known for its swift and certain death strikes. In Thailand you were more likely to (and actually did) encounter malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, tapeworms, and rabid dogs. Still, back in the day, Thailand had serious snakes. Even in the capital city of Bangkok it was common to see stray cobras and pythons (albeit most were dead) along the pathways, canals, and emerging streets. The fun-loving Thais enjoyed stretching out a 12-foot domesticated python for us volunteers to hold up for a photo-op. The snakes, of course, were well fed and inured to humans, but it was still not my favorite activity of cross-cultural exchange. Cobras were not treated as casually as pythons in captivity, but a common street spectacle back then involved a partitioned cage containing a cobra and a small weasel-like animal called a mongoose. The idea was for a stager to spend hours drumming up a crowd and taking bets on which animal would survive when the partition was removed and the savage mutual thrusts toward mortal wounding began. Anyone “in the know” understood that the mongoose always wins, so I never figured out how money was made on such bouts, and I did not prefer to stick around for the denouement. It was more than enough to see the animals hissing and striking furiously at each other from opposite sides of the partition. Maybe the owner of the creatures stopped the fight before the kill (Thais are practical like that), since surely in this scheme the primary prey was the money of tourists or naïve city folk.
Pit vipers were snakes of a different stripe, literally, and definitely not to be gamed or domesticated. At least I thought that until I took a jaunt to Penang, Malaysia during one of my Peace Corps Thailand breaks. When a friend and I heard rumors of the Temple of the Azure Clouds, colloquially referred to as the “Snake Temple,” we couldn’t resist scouting it out. Supposedly, in the mid-1800s when the temple was constructed in the jungle, the original monks allowed the pit vipers that nested there to remain sheltered and unmolested within the confines of the temple. According to legend, the untamed yet grateful pit vipers have lived in harmony with humans on the temple grounds ever since. A small donation was required to enter the grounds and check out the temple, meaning, of course, the snakes. In and around the temple, there was an acrid, pervasive, almost over-powering reek of smoking incense, and the snakes seemed as if they were either drugged or perhaps immobilized from the intense daytime tropical heat. We stared at the pit vipers languishing at the various shrines and wrapped around the Buddha images, and gasped when we came upon an unexpected one dangling like tangled tinsel from a branch near our heads or lolling about underfoot on the pathways. Mostly, though, we tourists just spooked one another, since the small colorful snakes were as motionless and dead-eyed as they were, definitely, poisonous. I recall that a bored and indolent monk on “snake duty” pointed and mimicked to insinuate that you could mitigate the grave danger you were exposed to with the donation of a few additional coins. Nowadays I understand that the pit vipers at this still popular tourist temple are far less numerous and that many warning signs have been posted about, though supposedly the snakes remain as indifferent and lackadaisical as ever.
By far my most memorable snake adventure came a couple of decades later when I was living in a mountainous farming village about an hour outside of Hiroshima, Japan. My family was part of a large staff that had been sent there to develop a branch of the City University of New York. Our industrious and generous Japanese hosts had cleared out some underbrush to build a state-of-the-art multi-tiered playground next to the faculty housing area. I first became aware of Japan’s most deadly snake, the notorious “Mamushi,” when I was romping in the playground with my two-year-old daughter and asked a college student for the translation and explanation of a prominent sign posted inside the play area. I was informed that the sign translated as, “Beware of the Mamushi here.”
The playground sign made me realize that I was “not in Kansas anymore,” but turned out to be a mere foreshadowing of my actual introduction to the Japanese Mamushi. My daughter had quickly become fluent in Japanese and I studied hard to become functional. From time to time it was the custom for the female teachers at her nursery school to meet up on the local mountain, laden with bags and baskets (and wearing silly hats, of course), to gather delicious edible herbs and mushrooms. I liked to accompany them on these jaunts to practice my Japanese and to enjoy the subsequent harvest. On one occasion I noticed a small group of elderly people, perhaps between 75 and 90 years old, gathered on the ridge above those of us stalking herbs. The old people were holding large sticks with a tong-like contraption at the bottom and some bottles partially filled with water. When I asked the typically chatty women in my group what the elders were doing, there was an uncomfortable silence followed by some evasive mumbling. Confounded, I hiked to the upper ridge and directly asked the old people what they were looking for. In a patchwork of English and Japanese words and gestures, they informed me that they were on a Mamushi hunt! The idea was to use the stick contraption to capture snakes alive, grab them by hand below the jaws, and put them into the bottles. Aghast, I lifted my hands and shook my head to inquire, “But why?” Grinning enthusiastically, they were not at all reluctant to share, through enactment, that after a couple of weeks, before the snake dies, they would remove the water from the bottle and replace it with a special type of sake liquor, which preserves the snake. After a year of steeping the Mamushi, they would drink the sake to make themselves stronger, more energetic, and, best of all, more sexually potent. I readily agreed to stand back while some of the elderly hunters went into the bush, deftly captured the first quarry, and put it into a bottle and sealed the top. They brought the bottle over and held it up for me to examine. Inside there was indeed a small but fatheaded, blotchy brown-gray and beige snake that was not at all pleased to be in the bottle. I bowed and thank the elders profusely for allowing me to observe the ritual, and they happily resumed their search.
When I rejoined the nursery school teachers on the lower ridge, they seemed relieved that I was more intrigued than appalled by the hunt, so they shared their own stories and knowledge of traditional Mamushi captures. I was told that the most challenging aspect of the endeavor is draining the water out of the bottle after the snake has been cleansed for a week or two (and is still alive) and replacing the water with the sake liquor. During that procedure, they assured, is when the snake has its best shot at a venomous revenge.
After a couple of years in Japan I returned to my university job in New York City, and the snakes in my life were restricted to the more psychic ones encountered on Freud’s royal road to the unconscious (dreams). Of course if I ever want to have a real snake transfixion other than with Mamushi Sake, there is always the surprisingly cold and dark Snake House in the World of Reptiles at the Bronx Zoo. Come to think of it, in 2011 a deadly Egyptian Cobra temporarily went missing from its habitat there. No, I did not ever spot it.