When I was a kid, I didn't much like snakes. My instinctive reaction, perhaps a sensible one, would be to stop in my tracks at the sight of a snake stretched out on a rock to sun itself. The snakes in my life were harmless garter snakes or water snakes, but I'd have nightmares about snakes, long and brightly colored snakes that I had never seen in real life, snakes that terrified me. I'd wake up shaking, drenched with sweat after a snake nightmare. These dreams continued into adulthood. But then my friend Poet Woman told me that I needed to embrace the snakes in my dreams. She told me that snakes symbolized change and transformation, and that I needed stop being so afraid of change.
I've tried over the years to embrace change, to welcome snakes into my life. Poet Woman used to give snake demonstrations at a science museum, and I'd watch her as she stood calmly talking while a long boa constrictor slithered over her shoulders, winding around her long hair and then her legs, just crawling all over her. One time she asked me to stand still, and she placed the snake on me, the coils of it turning heavily against my own hair.
I've learned all kinds of things about snakes from my students, who take a whole course in herpetology. I've seen snakes, real life snakes, at important moments during my life, at times when I was undergoing transformations of my own. I've gathered snakeskins, too, and have several on the bookshelves of my home office, as a reminder to myself of the kind of shedding that sometimes needs to happen when growth occurs.
I still don't love snakes the way other people I've known. I wouldn't volunteer to give snake demonstrations like Poet Woman does. I would never pick a water snake up and carry it around in my pocket like That Kid We Knew Up at Camp. I wouldn't write a dissertation on snakes and spend my life studying them like Grad Student Who Studies Shy, Endangered Rattlesnakes. I certainly wouldn't grab a snake and chase my friends around with it like Any Number of Annoying Kids I Went to School With Including Blonde Sister.
But I've grown to appreciate the presence of snakes, the watersnakes that sun themselves on our dock up at camp and the garter snakes that live in my woodpile. Four years ago, during a wonderful week that was filled for me with growth and transformation, I saw a snake at Pretty Colour Lake and then another snake at Pond Made Famous By Nature Writer. This May, while I was doing yard work and planting two new river birches, a project that felt good because it was the first time since my knee injury that I felt truly healed, I tried to move a dead tree that had come crashing down during a winter storm, and beneath it, curled in the grass, I saw a small snake.