Snakes and people

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been thinking about the relationship between the snake, which God curses in Genesis, and mankind, his crowning achievement. He thinks the snakes are getting a raw deal.

(Lange) “…Then the Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, you are accursed more than all cattle and all wild creatures. On your belly you shall crawl, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your brood and hers. They shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel.'”

Few years ago Mother and I and our daughters traveled to southern Italy. On a warm spring afternoon, we rode mountain bikes up a spectacular winding road into the mountains of Calabria. It was the mating season of snakes, and they seemed to prefer warm asphalt to the dusty olive groves for their procreative activities. There were thousands of them — big and black — all over the road. Their instinct for self-preservation diminished, they were slow to dodge oncoming danger. We veered wildly back and forth to avoid them.

I thought of that day recently as I read a scholarly report concerning the accuracy of the Bible: you know, the Garden of Eden, the Flood, a man regurgitated by a fish. And I wondered: Which came first, the hatred of snakes or Genesis? And why either?

Snakes evoke pathology in large numbers of otherwise normal people. Emily Dickinson describes the reaction as “a tighter breathing and Zero at the Bone.” And she’s right: They do make you jump. I picked up an overturned canoe one hot day and flipped it onto my shoulders. Two sleepy ribbon snakes fell out, right onto my head. Well…!

But that doesn’t explain the herpetocidal mania, the compulsion many people feel to kill any snake they encounter.

David Shepherd, a biology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, set out several rubber snakes and a rubber turtle on a highway and noted the responses of 22,000 drivers who saw them. Predictably, the snakes brought out the worst in people. They went out of their way to crush them. Only one-third as many went after the turtle.

One woman turned around and came back, running over the rubber snake five times. A police officer “swerved to hit the snake, stopped, backed up over it, then got out of his car, drew his gun and took a bead on its head.” Professor Shepherd kept his own head down.

I don’t get it. Seems to me that things were pretty well balanced before we came along. Carpenter ants, for instance, were just one of nature’s means of breaking down dead organic matter. When we began building wooden houses, they suddenly became “pests.” and “vermin.” Coyotes, groundhogs, mosquitoes and black flies, gophers and rats, chiggers and ticks – all of them come in for opprobrium and slander.

But from whom? Only one other species, that’s whom. And yet Genesis says that God created this species as his crowning achievement. I guess I’ll tackle that one another day,

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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