I’ve never liked snakes. There’s something about their scale covered skin and primordial entwinement with the idea of encroaching evil and original sin that has always put me off. My heart skipped a beat one cold fall day in the Appalachians when I was hiking back-country trails with my friend Daniel – trying to forget past pains and breath in hope for new beginnings. The ground was covered in lately fallen leaves, and sticks and roots littered the broken mountain pathways. I carried trekking polls and set their points down ahead of me to steady each new step. That one particular step stays in my memory. I planted the first poll firmly and began to bring the other forward when I realized mid-motion that the twisted root, inches ahead of me, was a living thing. A snake, the same color as the woods, almost petrified in suspended animation as he tried to soak up a tiny remainder of sun before he slept away the winter months in some mountain hole. Reflexively, I thrust my poll down inches ahead of its intended landing place, just missing this living thing, but throwing my whole body off balance in the process. My arms caught the lurching momentum of my pack-laden frame as I jerked to an unexpected stop – my body hanging from my walking sticks, staring down at the root-colored snake just below me.
I’ve slowly come to an internal détente with snakes, and the only offensive quality of this one was his surprise showing in such an un-prepared moment. A few years earlier I had met Jimmy at a rundown backpackers’ hostel in Nelspruit, South Africa. Jimmy is missing a few of his teeth, has a gentle voice, and an immense beard. He prefers to pad around barefoot and is perhaps the least racist white South African I ever met (a moral achievement which he attributes primarily to marijuana). Jimmy knows the Africa bush as if he was an encyclopedia and loves to wander it under any circumstances. He was probably slightly drunk (but then when wasn’t he?) when he agreed to take me on a private, unauthorized tour of Kruger National Park, but still his planning was thorough, and practiced. As we were about to wander, without firearms, into country owned by lions, elephants, and rhinos, he discussed how we would respond to encounters with any of the above named. As we drove together toward the park he expressed his hope that we might see some of the glorious snakes of the African bush. He spoke wistfully of the day he had caught a black mamba and brought it back to a game preserve for them to show their guests, only to have the gift rejected because of what he felt was irrational fear of the quick black terror. Logically Jimmy explained to me the absolute medical impossibility of the incredible and pervasive claims of the black mamba’s mythical nearly instantaneous killing power. He thought he knew where such legends had started and he put no stock in them. Trying to put on my bravest face I asked what we would do if we encountered such reptiles during our wandering. With no irony in his voice he answered, “Enjoy!” Perhaps for the best we had no such enjoyable encounters, but still, Jimmy represented for me an altogether different way of seeing these creatures.
It would be a lie to say that I’ve come to love serpents, but for the first time recently I found myself feeling a sense of kinship with the slithering beasts. Perhaps more often than actually encountering live snakes during my hiking, I’ve come across the snake-shaped yet entirely hollow skins jettisoned during the reptiles’ annual growth ritual. This is the thing about snakes that has been recently percolating through my mind; the idea of what they leave behind as they grow. It is the possibility of being exactly the same individual that you have always been, and yet at the same instant not being the same person at all that I find both intriguing and resonant. There is this glorious image of continuity in form and persistence of life mixed with the metamorphic imagery of progress and growth. This is not the change of the caterpillar to the butterfly where the life form transitions so dramatically as to be unrecognizable, but still something just as profound. It represents a growth so deep that older borders of self no longer apply and must be shed before life can go on. I personally feel like I’ve been going through such a shedding process of late. I found myself confused after talking to a friend on the phone and defending myself as being the same person I’d always been – while ignoring the irony of the fact that nearly every idea I was putting forward was at odds with the arguments I once would have made. Those abandoned and lifeless shells which once held a snake’s existence somehow made it come together for me. Of course they have to be left behind. They were once an integral part of life, but to continue to hang on to them would only make continued life impossible. Yes, I’m exactly the man I’ve always been. Naturally I sometimes seem barely recognizable. Year by year I wriggle out of the old and on into the new. You’ll be able to measure my growth by what I’ve been able to leave behind.