Festooned

Corn snake

As a teenager, my first awareness of the power of contemporary poetry came from an encounter with D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake.”  So beautiful, evocative and seductive the language, but so dark the subject.  The darkness did not lie in the image or actions of the poem’s snake, but rather was revealed through the dark heart of a human, acting on irrational or culture-generated fear of what is not understood.  The poem, through the speaker, offered exposition and expiation. The poem, for this reader, opened a wonder-world of depth and meaning through words that has remained my fascination with poetry to this day.

Yesterday I held a snake; a beautiful sienna and gold corn snake – or red rat snake.  His name is Webster, and he is one of the many ‘animal ambassadors’ – creatures in the educational programming division of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where I am a volunteer.  This was my initiation into the opportunity to someday work with the Museum’s animals that I’ve spent more than a year observing and learning about as a Steward (docent) in the Museum’s Perkins Wildlife Center.

Webster was a revelation. As a child growing up in the then-wilds of the ex-urbs, I used to catch snakes; the yellow-striped gartersnake, the blue racer. So I was neither squeamish nor afraid when Wildlife Volunteer Peter brought out Webster and allowed me to hold him. But I had forgotten, or perhaps never paid close enough attention as a child, to how specifically alive these creatures are.  The cool, smooth silk of their skin covers a body that is not just sinuous in its movement, but pulsing in the most subtle but powerful way. It is a long, continuously flexing muscle of a being that eases itself peacefully through the world and transforms itself into a whiplash when threatened.

I’ve thought a lot about why so many humans fear snakes.  Setting aside the devil in the garden myth, I think in part it may be because their mode of transportation and engaging with the environment is so unlike anything else on land that we know – including ourselves.  Most of us – even insects – have legs and arms; appendages used to navigate, investigate and manipulate our shared world.  But a snake seems propelled by magic; an invisible force. And its means of defense, as well as how it uniquely knows the world, is through its mouth and tongue.  (Only venomous snakes have fangs.  Most snakes have teeth – like us.)

Holding Webster yesterday – or, rather, being held by him, since he pretty much took over the job of engaging with me – was a pure delight.  Gentle but insistent contractions and expansions moved his smooth, cool, jeweled body around mine; I found myself festooned with necklaces, bracelets and belts of red and ochre patterned satin.  Feeling and observing his movements I could think of nothing better than it was as if he were swimming; flowing gracefully and with ease through the air, across the surface of my body.  Quite delicious.

As sensuous as the experience may have been, I was also conscious of Webster’s vulnerability. At its thickest point, the snake’s body was thinner than my wrist. His head and neck, the width of a pencil.  I could have done him harm had I not been careful in unwrapping him from the looped tangle he’d arranged of himself through the straps of my backpack and the cord of my Museum credential.  Yesterday’s experience was my first in observing the experienced wildlife education volunteers, and the first step in doing what it will take to become one myself.

For the live animal show in the Museum’s Sears Hall yesterday, Peter also worked with Sweetie, the red-tailed hawk and Lancelot, the porcupine, in addition to Webster the corn snake.  The audience of children and their parents, young couples and older folk had the chance to learn a lot about these important, wild and fascinating creatures that share our world.  As Peter’s lecture and demonstration were coming to a close, everyone in the audience got to touch Webster’s cool, smooth, clean body – but not the hawk or the porcupine.

Perhaps the reality of who were the scarier, more dangerous animals in the room resonated with some in the assembled crowd.

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Here’s two favorite poems on the subject, from D. H. Lawrence Snake, and Emily Dickinson A Narrow Fellow in the Grass

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