Recently, I’ve posted quite a few photos of snakes on Facebook. Most of my friends have found them beautiful, or at least interesting. A few of my friends, however, have been puzzled, the shudders running down their spines as they look at my pictures palpable to me, even though I live hundreds, and in a few cases, even thousands, of miles away from them. They just can’t figure out why I find snakes so appealing.
The fact is, I’ve always had a love affair with snakes, starting when I was a small child. It wasn’t my own experiences with them that began this affair. It was the fantastic tales my Uncle Ed used to tell me.
Uncle Ed lived and worked in India for many years during the 1930s. India, of course, is home to many snakes. His stories were wild and improbable, and to a little girl who both loved anything wild and who would grow up to become a storyteller, his stories were like the strawberries growing in his garden. I couldn’t pluck and devour enough of either.
There was the story of the king cobra that lived beneath the stairs to my uncle’s back garden. Usually, the cobra kept his distance from my uncle and aunt, but one time, the snake coiled up between my aunt and the back stairs, trapping her in the garden for several hours before my uncle arrived home and somehow got the snake to move. My aunt always swore the snake seemed to be amused by the game of keeping her at bay.
And there was the story about the time my uncle, my cousin, and several of their friends took a long bicycle ride through the countryside. They stopped for a rest, and sat on a large log. My cousin took out his pocket knife, picked up a stick, and began to whittle. When he accidentally dropped the stick, he stuck his knife into the log on which they were sitting in order to retrieve the dropped stick. The log began to move. It was, in actuality, an enormous python, its belly swollen from a recent meal.
How much of my uncle’s stories was true and how much was invented in order to capture his young niece’s rapt attention is anyone’s guess. But those stories instilled in me a lifelong respect and love for snakes.
I lived in the Midwest for the first 51 years of my life, and wasn’t privy to many face-to-face snake encounters. As a child, there were garter snakes that sometimes crossed paths with me as I played. The occasional eastern diamondback rattler or copperhead we’d encounter when camping, and which my father kept at a distance by steering us off the trail or out of the campsite until the snake had moved on.
It wasn’t until I moved to California three years ago that Snake became such a big part of my life. And once she made her presence known to me, she hasn’t been out of my sights for long.
Last summer, I had a recurring dream, not only as I slept, but also when I would meditate. In this dream, I was hiking, and I crossed paths with a rattlesnake. I was very calm, as was the snake. Somehow, I knew I was supposed to be bitten by this snake. The snake coiled and struck. It did not hurt. At this point, I would either awaken or come out of my meditative trance.
Psychologist Carl Jung had a lot to say about snakes in our dreams. He wrote, “What Nature wants us to do is to move with a snake-like motion. … The snake is the symbol of the great wisdom of Nature, for the too direct way is not the best way; the crooked way, the detour, is the shorter way.”
Jung’s words made sense to me. I had spent the better part of the summer working with youth, teaching them the way of the Earth Mage, to love and respect Nature. But the program fell apart due to lack of cooperation from the agency that engaged me to start the program to begin with. The dream about being bitten by Snake may have been my mind’s way of telling me I needed to take a different path to sharing my Earth Mage message with children.
Snake is also a symbol of awakening kundalini, a reservoir of creative energy originating at the base of the spine. The image of a coiled snake suggests a spring and conveys a sense of untapped energy. In Hindu tradition, kundalini awakening and moving up through the body leads to enlightenment. In Shamanic tradition, this awakening leads to wisdom, and is something that isn’t experienced until midlife or beyond. (Hence, we don’t often marvel at the wisdom of youth.)
At the time of my recurring snake dream, I was suffering a severe case of blocked creativity. I was having difficulty writing. My third novel was stalled; my main source of editing income had dried up as a result of the bad economy. I had all sorts of artistic inspiration in my mind, but lacked the wherewithal to follow through with my ideas.
The appearance of Snake in my dreams, I realized, was not meant to be taken as literal foreshadowing of being bitten by a snake. It was meant to be interpreted as the end of my blocked creativity, the awakening of my kundalini energy. It was time to focus on something new. I began writing short stories instead of struggling through the doomed novel. I stuck the stalled novel on a flash drive and got it off my computer.
Living in a rather wild area in Southern California, and spending as much time as I do in wilderness areas, it’s not at all surprising I cross paths with real snakes (as opposed to dream snakes) on a regular basis. We have gopher snakes and garter snakes on the wild hill we call home, and rattlesnakes in our arroyo.
Just yesterday we stumbled upon a dead juvenile coral-bellied ring-necked snake, a little beauty that is not rare, but is rarely seen due to its shy nature.
A few weeks ago, when hiking at the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs, we encountered a speckled rattlesnake, a black and white banded kingsnake, a garter snake, and a red diamondback rattlesnake—four different snakes in less than four hours’ time. Sometimes, I am able to get pictures of the snakes. Other times, I am not. Either way, seeing them gives me a profound sense of pleasure. I feel honored that Mother Nature has seen fit to allow this much-maligned creature and me to share the same path for a few moment’s time. Despite what my photographs may appear to show, I respect their space and view them from a distance. (That’s what long lenses and photo editing software are for—to make it seem like I am standing or sitting on the ground right next to the snake. In most cases, especially with venomous snakes, I am not.)
To me, seeing a snake is a gift. Snake reminds me that the direct route is not always the best route, that the winding path is often most desirable. She tells me I am a creative person and can shed my creative skin as often as I like, because sometimes a fresh start is all we need to turn a dull and dead project into a work of art.
Snake is my constant companion, a part of my psychological makeup, as well as my neighbor on this hill I call home. We are both children of Nature. Why wouldn’t I love her?
(Smoky is an ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature. She lives in California with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.