Sunday, April 15, 2012

SNAKES THAT I HAVE KNOWN


 This morning I preached a message in church which included as one of the Scriptures the story when the Apostle Paul got bitten by a viper. I did not say this in the message, but it reminded me of something that I wrote several years ago about snakes with which I have had an encounter, but not bitten (thankfully).
By the way, I have also added three more letters to the Polynesian Discovery series that you see on the left side of the blog page. Sorry, but you have to scroll down to read them. I have put up to Part 8 (of 22 or 23 total)

SNAKES THAT I HAVE KNOWN

When we lived in Venezuela, I had a trail on which I took walks when I needed to get out into the country for a little while.  Occasionally, when I was out, I would see a snake on the path traveling wherever snakes go, and for whatever purpose.  Most of the snakes, I am sure, fled long before I came upon them.  Having been warned by the vibrations of my footfalls, they avoided a confrontation by disappearing before I arrived.  I was grateful to them for this.  I do not mind sharing a path with most other creatures, but I would prefer if snakes used their own trail ways.
On one walk, I came upon a Mapanare lying on the trail.  Venezuela has many notable snakes.  Most notable of all, perhaps, is the Giant Anaconda.  The Anaconda can grow to a length of fifty feet or more and have the diameter of a dinner plate.  It is a constrictor, which means its bite is not poisonous, but if it is able to get one coil of its body around a limb of an animal (or person), it quickly is able to pull it into its grasp and squeeze the life out of its prey.
However, it is the Mapanare that is Venezuela’s most deadly snake.  It is the Western Hemisphere’s largest venomous snake.  Whereas the Anaconda is content to stay mostly in the more dense jungle areas, the Mapanare is found throughout the country.  His bite is very toxic and once bitten, the prey has little chance of survival, no matter what the victim’s size.  In Venezuela, the people call it the “four step” snake, meaning that once you are bitten, you can take about four steps before you are dead.  Like any venomous snake, the Mapanare not only uses its bite for hunting, but for defense.  In addition, he is very aggressive in his personality and does not easily use the fleeing tactic to escape a dangerous situation.
Normally when I saw a snake on my intended path, I stamped my foot firmly to send the signal to this traveler that something big and dangerous is coming on the trail and that he had better move off.  Usually it worked.  The snake would generally slither off into the brush, yielding to me the right of way.  I then passed (very carefully and with no small apprehension) past the point where he had disappeared.
On that day I used the same tactic.  The Mapanare was lying in the trail, facing away from me at an angle, head up, tongue flickering and sensing my nervousness.  He was about a meter long and the end of his tail was about two meters away from me.  He never flinched at my threat.  I stamped again, harder.  Nothing.  I decided to pick up small pebbles to toss in his direction.  I must have thrown three or four in his proximity but he acted as if he did not even hear them.  He was frozen still except for that dragon-like tongue.  To raise the level of threat to this obstacle in my path, I picked up a larger pebble and tossed it, not to land close to him, but my intention this time was to hit him.  This, I thought, would send him off to another trail.
The result was not what I expected.  When the stone hit him in the back it did not send him scurrying timidly off into the grass.  The moment he was struck, every muscle in his body instantly came to life.  He did not move in the direction he was facing as I thought he would, but so quickly I that I could not believe his agility, he reeled around and lashed at me like a spring released.  I can still picture his open mouth.  I can still see his ugly fangs.
What was even more surprising to me was how fast I could still move.  It is amazing what fear mixed with adrenaline can do.  He missed, and as an admission of defeat slithered off the trail going back in the direction from where he had come.  And I, after several frozen moments of listening to my racing and pounding heart, proceeded up my path.
I have had other experiences with snakes, but that is the first time that I would say I had been attacked by one (and hopefully last time).

Once, during the time when I lived in India, I was taking a shower at a friend’s place.  I was staying in a bungalow apart from the rest of the house and the bathhouse had an outside entrance.  My host had warned me to always keep the door shut because snakes liked to crawl into the cool, humid atmosphere of the shower to escape the heat of the day.  It was for that same purpose of escaping the heat that I decided to take a shower one afternoon.
I had tuned on the shower and was just beginning to enjoy the freshness of the cool water wash off the grime and heat, when I had a strange sensation that I was not alone there in my cubicle.  I looked down at my feet and then over to the corner just in time to see a cobra raising its head and spreading its hood to me.  His tactic to claim the shower for his own was amazingly effective.  That time it was I, and not the snake, who yielded, and I yielded in a hurry.  I think that I very well may have been the first streaker in India, although I did manage to grab a towel on the way out.

Several years later, Vivian and I led a few teams of young people to do work projects for different mission works.  The training for the teams took place at a wild and rustic site in Florida.  Our living was camping conditions in the Florida lowlands (I guess it is all kind of lowland).  One day as I was in our tent, I heard the team members outside suddenly scream and get up and run, yelling “snake, snake!”  As I was coming out of our tent, I saw a coral shake crawling through the middle of our sitting area.  I suppose the correct thing to do would have been to allow it to escape because I am sure it was more frightened than were the girls.  That perhaps would have been the nice thing, but I did not want to have to go back to my tent wondering where it had gone.  Fortunately, my foot was armored with a heavy boot, the heel of which came down even heavier on the head of our unwanted guest.
The team members returned to see what had happened and immediately the inevitable discussion arose on how you can tell the difference between a very deadly coral snake and a harmless king snake.  The animated conversation between our two members from the state of Florida made me laugh.  Who was right?  Was it “black on yellow-dangerous fellow!” or “red on black-get back Jack!”?
        
This was not my only run in with the coral snake. We once had a house in Guatemala with a small garden or lawn in the back. The garden was so small that I used to cut the grass in it with a machete. On the three sides of the garden that were not bordered by the back of the house, it was bordered by cement block walls. The area was completely enclosed.

Enclosed as it was, one day as I was cutting the grass, I was suddenly surprised by a coral snake crawling toward me. I have no idea how he got into the garden and wondered if they must burrow in the ground. No matter, he was there and I did not want him there. Leaving a venomous snake alone in the wild is one thing, but within the confinement of your home is quite another.

I don’t suppose that he was really attacking me, but the fact that he was crawling toward me and not fleeing from me was enough for me. With a quick stroke of my machete I cut my little adversary in half.

However, much to my shock, even this did not end his advance! The front half, the half with the head and the fangs, continued the charge. In my imagination, that front half looked very angry with me! My machete fell again, not once, but three or four times. Finally my foe lie motionless in the newly cut grass.

An over-reaction on my part? Perhaps so, but the little fellow really seemed intent on biting me with his venomous fangs. I did not like his plans. 
 
A couple of years after that incident we were in Mexico, working at a Bible camp for a year or so.  There was a Mexican brother of Mayan descent named Valentin who worked with me.  We were clearing brush in a low area to bring an electrical line into the camp.  Valentin told me to keep my eyes open for snakes, as there were water moccasins in that area.  Well, my eyes were not trained as my Mayan friend’s were, and as we worked, I heard him suddenly say to me in a loud whisper “culebra”.  It took a little time for him to help me to see where a large water moccasin laid curled up and sleeping in a shady spot.
Again, the good thing to do may have been to let it be.  But once again, who wanted to be working and at the same time wondering if the snake was still sleeping?  And if it was not still sleeping in that spot, where was it now?  Valentin’s plan was simple but effective.  He would take a crotched stick, approach the snake, trap it and hold it down.  Once he had it, I could just come up with the machete and cut its head off.  Simple – only that Valentin did not know the gringo who was working with him did not possess the same calmness of temperament when it came to snakes as he did.  Valentin did his part silently and stealthily.  When it was my turn, I came rushing in flaying the machete around as if I was going to battle.  I am sure Valentin must have wondered if I planned to attack him or the snake.  Somewhere in there I did manage to get the snake, much to my (and Valentin’s) relief.

Snakes, I know in my mind, are our friends.  They share our environment and I am somewhat ashamed of the natural repulsion that I feel toward them.  It may be from my years of living in the tropics that I hold these negative responses to snakes.  The snakes that live in these places are so deadly and so, well…deadly.  That is the only word that comes to mind.  I did not have these same feelings at our safe home in Wisconsin, where poison is not part of a snake’s arsenal.  I hope that the snake world can forgive me for these feelings.  After all, it was not I who first began the feelings of antipathy in our relationship.

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