It was the stuff of childhood lore, really, those few years when garter snakes declared the low area just behind the house their territory. We’d lead unsuspecting friends over to the barrel with the mesh lid on it and they’d run away shrieking at the sight of that day’s capture writhing up the sides, looking for escape. In the evening, Dad would take the barrel down to the river and send them on their way, slithering into freedom, hoping they’d find a new home-base somewhere other than the backyard. Who knows – maybe they came right back up the hill and we captured the same snakes over and over again. At any rate, it makes a good story.
I read an article in Orion Magazine a few months back about snakes and the fear that they tend to invite into people’s lives. Author Melanie Challenger writes about some research on primates that shows that we humans are perhaps hardwired to detect snakes, and that “the dominant feelings .. would appear to be fear and hostility, essential internal states to safeguard survival.” It’s worth saying that detection and fear aren’t the same thing – very young children are often unafraid of these fearsome beasts.
“When it comes to our fears, stories matter deeply. We can tell stories that trigger our biases or stories that steady our arm.”
There are a lot of scary stories out there in the world that are based on snakes as the evil villain, whether said snakes deserve it or not. Fear of snakes is a thing, even if (or perhaps especially if) you didn’t grow up with a snake bucket in the wood shed.
Me, to one brother: “Can you check the compost pile for heat? Just stick your hand in to see if things are breaking down.”
Brother: “No way, there might be snakes in there.”
Despite being individuals who spend a great deal of time outdoors due to vocation (vegetable farming) and enjoyment (hiking, gardening, communing with nature, etc), and a childhood that got pretty up close and personal with reptiles, my brothers and I seem to have an underlying aversion to these no-legged creatures. They are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem, and they help keep rodent populations in the high tunnels down at the farm. But a large garter snake crawled out of the tall grass next to our garage just the other day, and I gasped louder than I care to admit. So I’m with Challenger when she goes on to say, “This is not to say they no longer inspire anxiety in me, irrational or otherwise. They do. They absolutely do.” Yes. They do.
But perhaps, facing those snakes in the barrel all summer long for those years in the 1980s was just an early opportunity to look fear in the face and realize it isn’t [quite] so scary when you let it look (or writhe) back at you. And then throw it in the river to go on its merry way.
Maybe all children need a snake bucket.