Encounters with Snakes


When I am born in Taos, New Mexico, following my parents’ raucous 1970s commune living, my mom and dad agree they will not raise me with any religion. This means I will not learn the story of the Garden of Eden and the snake that goads Eve to eat the apple until much, much later. There is a conspicuous absence of snakes for the first few years of my life.


Our driveway is the last stop for the Peñasco public school bus. In kindergarten I walk the mile-long dirt road to my house, accompanied by my cat Wailin’. Three hundred feet from the house I see a dead garter snake in the road. It is little and yellow-brown and very flat. I pee my pants.


My dad decides to scare the Jehovah’s Witnesses off by opening the door naked. It works; they never come back. He also reads Native American stories and Greek mythology to me and my sister. I am fascinated by the illustrations of Medusa. She doesn’t scare me. Even if she were real, I decide, the snakes wouldn’t really grow back if they were chopped off.


We live in El Petén—the jungles of Guatemala. I almost step on a boa constrictor—ten feet long and eight inches wide. “Culebra!” I scream to Orlando. He arrives quickly and hacks the boa in half with a machete. Both ends start twisting and curling and one end wraps itself around a dog’s neck, coiling tighter and tighter. Orlando hacks it off.


My cousin Jessie introduces me to Ani Difranco’s music. I sing incessantly and memorize words to songs I don’t understand. One of my favorite lines is: “I happen to like apples and I am not afraid of snakes.” Ani is fierce and fearless, and at fifteen I aspire to such bad-assery.


At my high school in India the biology students go into the hills to collect poisonous snakes and later pass a jar around at assembly. A bright red snake is coiled inside, floating in formaldehyde. It’s newly dead and as the jar sloshes the snake moves as if still alive. Are its eyes gleaming or is it just refracted light on the glass? When it’s my turn to hold the jar, I pass.


In her book As Eve Said to the Serpent, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Imagine Eve as one of the few scientists to discuss the long-term consequences of her acts before she began her apple-eating experiment. Imagine what she and the snake might have had to say to each other about becoming symbols and scapegoats, about how they would be represented and misrepresented.”


The snake pictographs on the cliffs in Gallinas Canyon are faint and hard to see. Apaches used to live here where the Great Plains meet the Rockies, and to them skin-shedding snakes provided evidence of death and rebirth, regeneration.


I am introduced to Gloria Anzaldúa. We read “Entering Into the Serpent” in class. She writes, “Snakes, víboras: since that day I’ve sought and shunned them. Always when they cross my path, fear and elation flood my body. I know things older than Freud, older than gender. She—that’s how I think of la Víbora, Snake Woman. Like the ancient Olmecs, I know the earth is a coiled Serpent. Forty years it’s taken me to enter into the Serpent, to acknowledge that I have a body, that I am a body and to assimilate the animal body, the animal soul.”

I want to feel the elation she feels.


I take my two-year-old daughter to the children’s museum where she likes to pet the corn snake. I watch from a distance, stroking my pregnant belly.


Somehow I have never seen a rattlesnake in all my years in New Mexico. But my brother-in-law encounters them every day as he weeds his garden in La Liendre. His farmhouse faces an old ghost town. I shiver. Who would live in such a snake-infested place?


Some people go through amicable divorces, I hear. Mine was anything but. I meet with lawyers in town who seem more interested in hitting on me than representing me. A friend tells me a joke: “What’s the difference between a lawyer in the road and a snake in the road?” I wait for the punch-line: “The skid-marks in front of the snake.”


Riding with my first girlfriend in her red pick-up truck in Golandrinas, we see a massive brown and yellow snake on the dirt road ahead of us. She identifies it as a bull snake, not a rattler, and she uses a stick to nudge it into the ditch and away from danger.


In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta I visit a python farm that uses python dung to generate electricity through a biogas system. When the snakes get big enough they are sold as a delicacy for a good price. The building is lined with huge cages made of wood and thick, meshed wire. One or two snakes occupy each cage. Each snake grows to about 20 feet long before it is sold. They appear to be a foot in diameter in some places. I watch as a man uses metal tongs to force-feed one python a dead rat. The snakes mostly sleep in an overstuffed stupor, but sometimes, I am told, a snake escapes.


A woman I have been talking to online agrees to meet me in person on the banks of the Clark Fork. We sit near the water, our silences full to spilling over. A garter snake, pencil-width, is looped around the speared tips of the tall grass, staring at us. We stare back. The suspense between us shimmers in the summer heat until it becomes too bright to bear. Time elongates like the shadows. When we stand up to brush the dirt from our clothes, the snake has vanished.


I peer at the mass of brown writhing in the grass along the banks of the East Fork of the Wallowa River. A den of snakes. I am reminded of the time, a few months ago, when one of my sixth grade poetry students stomped on a spider. When her classmate asked what it had done to her, she shrieked in response, “But it’s scary!” I want to tell her now that maybe Genesis is like the poetry we’re writing—there’s so much meaning in what is not said. I want to point out that Eve chose knowledge in the end, not fear.

In the fall, I teach Genesis to college students. Despite my attempts to point out that the Serpent is not named as the Devil in the text and that the Old Testament was written before the conceptions of Heaven and Hell were in place, the Devil enters my students’ essays as a serpent. I teach them Gloria Anzaldúa, then. Their essays whisper devil, devil, devil. I ask them to point to the devil in the texts. They cannot.


I read the news every day and think of serpents. I imagine myself a rattlesnake, rattling my tail like a yucca pod. I imagine a million Medusas marching along Pennsylvania Avenue, my head wound with snakes writhing, snakes seething, snakes shedding old skin.


Emily Withnall is a freelance writer and editor and teaches poetry to young people. She holds an MS in environmental writing from the University of Montana, and her essays and poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, High Country News, Ms. Magazine, and The Fourth River, among other publications. Emily is currently at work on a book about domestic violence and hydraulic fracturing. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two kids.

Photo Credit: Nick Triolo