Monday, February 5, 2018

Thoughts in a book: the snake

San Francisco garter snake, an endangered species

March 27, 2016
‘The inanimate becomes animate.’
– Alia Volz, Snakebit

Mutability and chaos. Change. Shedding of a skin, the slithering sinuous amidst the still and hiding plants. The danger of the unknown.

Snakes and reptiles contain the unknown, display it to us. They are mobile, alive. They share with us the ranging search of the eye, the gnawing need of the gut. They are very much like us.

At once they are utterly strange. The clawed feet of the lizard, his alien pupils and shambling gate. To say nothing of the slither of the snake, writhing, out of our mind’s reach. We may watch one part but not take in the whole. Their vestigial limbs long since withdrawn inside themselves. Their eyes, while we share similar features, hold a darkness like a cave that spreads, past what their small heads ought to contain, opening onto the cavernous interior of the earth.

No wonder their shapes touch our most primal fears. Long ago they must have been one of our more potent dangers. The body remembers. This is one of those clear examples, of the unbroken thread of the physical, our bodies to those of our ancestors. That we can have this fear, this bodily fear, of something rarely seen in our citified lives, these small and mostly harmless garter snakes, gopher snakes, rubber boas, these little creatures living as they have for so long, forced into increasingly attenuated habitat. Like so many dangers, civilization would amplify that fear in order to shut away the individuals in a preserve called ‘nature.’

The civilized mind, trying so hard to separate from the body, yet still inextricable from it, still utterly beholden to the physical. Our thoughts are feelings in our bodies, our sensations equal thoughts, inseparable. But the attempted separation from the body leaves us unmoored from the physical ground, in this portable culture. It causes the fears of that dark unknown beyond civilized borders, beyond city wall and beyond egoistic mind. In the gut, in the wild, that unknown darkness looms large and dangerous and vague. What is not seen or felt, only dimly intuited, captures the worst of the imagination. We fill the dark with a pit of vipers.

The snake becomes the very epitome of fear in the civilized perspective. Volz: ‘They are shape-shifters … Snakes are deception, surprise, mutability. They violate the predictable. Snakes are agents of chaos.’

In this civilized age, we have worked hard to produce a human habitat that seems on the surface to be static and predictable, none of the surprise the non-human presents. From the ordered grid of planned cities to the blocks of factory-farmed corn to the sterile cornucopia of the supermarket, everything predictable and on-demand, ordered down to the smallest variable.

This must be a facade and a fiction – it cannot remain for long. It has done so just long enough for us to see it as commonplace. But being is fluid and dynamic; it implies change. In the face of this, our obsession with the inert seems fallacious, a cul-de-sac. Almost a yearning for death, or deathlessness.

Meanwhile, those who live closely with the more-than-human, with the broader landscape that gives rise to us, they often see the snake as sacred, for the same reasons it is fearful to us. Mutable, it implies all mutability, of matter and being. That unknowable depth in the eye of the snake implies the mystery that will never come fully to light, limited as we are by each form. The serpent is the mysterious truth that cannot be kept still. At once, each snake is another individual, here in this land, like each human. Across that threshold we find a being not so different, she with her hungry guts, the scents on her tongue.

So-called deception is then merely our own limitation in seeing, a limitation civilization promulgates. If we stop seeing ourselves as the center of some cosmic narrative, we can acknowledge that what seems deceptive is not aimed at us, is not a trick designed to steal something from us – it is only things being as they are, partly hidden from our limited senses.

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