While hiking along the Iowa River the other day, I decided to cut through grass in need of mowing. The trail formed a U, with the bottom curve washed out.
I only got halfway through the grass when I froze.
A snake, a light stripe running down its brown back, lay half curled like a scythe. I hadn't heard it slithering my way, but as we stared at one another, its whispered "Sssss!" sounded like a thunderclap.
We each stood our ground, a foot apart from the other, it unwilling to take on a creature as large as me, I unwilling to gamble against its speed and neither of us willing to turn our backs on the other.
My heart pounded loud enough that I couldn't hear the wind blowing the grass tops in great swells. The heat of the sun on that otherwise pleasant day only grew as sweat trickled down the back of my neck. I wished for a good hoe.
Iowa pioneers killed snakes by the thousands during our state's early years. Throughout May, settlers frequently reported snakes sunning themselves in field furrows or the paths cut through the grass between cabin and road.
Often when pioneers cleared land or went grubbing, a concealed snake would bite. Cows and dogs also were frequent victims. There simply wasn't enough room for snake and man.
While rattlers, blacksnakes, blue racers and the common garter proved too resilient to be wiped out, in time persistent pioneers did significantly reduce their ranges.
Sometimes pioneers found bull snakes in their cabins, ironically curled against shelf-laden Bibles. I suspect a few settlers found some cosmological significance in this juxtaposition.
There also are accounts of strapping young farm hands who grew hysterical in the presence of snakes. Such men weren't cowards. Most of us have an instinctual repulsion at the sight of snakes. It runs deep in our evolutionary history, and other primates have the same reaction.
Thanks to the power of reason, we fortunately can overcome - or at least control - our fear. It's a matter of learning about them, of spending time near them, even if they're still on the other side of the glass. We don't have to like snakes, just acknowledge that they're not inherently evil.
After all, while a serpent did tempt in the garden, humanity of its own choosing bit into the apple. Man, not snake, is responsible for our fall.
And the pride that won't let us admit we have no one to blame but ourselves is the most dangerous evil of all.
These days, snakes aren't the threat they were in pioneer times. As we've modified the landscape to fit our needs, we've wiped out the habitats many native species required for their prey to thrive; some of them consider our suburban lawns and cornfields great wastelands.
I doubted the snake in the grass before me was poisonous; certainly I'd have heard if a venomous snake were common in the area. And it was only a couple of feet long at best. Still, a black V under its eye that ran to the mouth gave it a sinister appearance, like Darth Vader's mask.
But I had scared this snake just as much as it had me. The notion of striking it with a hoe suddenly seemed as repulsive as the snake itself.
The snake and I had to end our standoff, though. My hope was that if I didn't move, it wouldn't be startled and strike.
After a few seconds of waiting for me to attack, it made a fast break into the grass. Perhaps if I would have lived 150 years ago, I'd have come back for it and its brethren with hoe in hand.
But there was no point other than to later pound my chest. After all, it just wanted to be left alone.
(originally published May 22, 2005)