Fear of snakes is one of the most common phobias in humans.
Why? Most people haven't even seen a snake up close and personal, or in a natural setting.
In ancient times the serpent, aka the snake, was both a symbol of evil power and chaos, and of life and healing. Talk about contradiction ... evolutionary psychologists spend hours debating why it is so, why we humans have this bias. With snakes, is it a learned fear or an innate fear? Has this dislike of the legless reptiles helped humans survive in the wild all these millennia?
Especially for Christians, does this distaste for snakes spring from the Story of Genesis' Adam and Eve in the Bible? I leave the answers for those more learned and studied than I. In my snake attitude, I fall back on common sense.
Snakes play a vital role in ecology. I've noticed a marked reduction in the destruction of moles, voles and mice since a few blacksnakes take up residence on my woodsy hill.
With good timing, an article this week out of Washington, D.C., reports the unusual siting of a copperhead in a small park near the National Mall. “They are the only venomous snakes in the city,” the Washington Post reported, “but their bites are rarely fatal; if you see one, remain calm and move away slowly. Like all wildlife in national parks, the copperhead is a protected species. And with up to 80 percent of their diet consisting of rodents, copperheads provide a very valuable service in controlling those populations in the park.”
Still, you wouldn't want to be absorbing the beauty of our nation's Capital and suddenly be faced with the dilemma of what to do about a venous snake.
Prep and anticipation a good thing
Before heading out on a trek across Asia years ago that started in Turkey and crossed overland through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, I attended a class on survival training. We learned how to hike in desert and snow conditions; how to make natural tents; how to use shoe tongues to make sunglasses; and, how to boil seashells for sunscreen.
I also learned the art of catching, cooking and eating snakes if ever desperate for food. The latter has never happened, thankfully. About one-fourth of the world's snake varieties are venomous, about 600 species. Most bites are not deadly but there are scary exceptions. For example, you wouldn't want to have a run in with a puff adder, carpet viper, taipan or cobra found in Africa or Asia. Those who study such thing say that the chances of dying from a venomous snake bite in the U.S. is nearly zero. That's not because there are no venomous snakes here; its because of the good medical care when someone is bitten.
The statistics are that fewer than one in 37,500 people are bitten in this country each year, which totals between 7,000 to 8,000 snake bites a year. Less than one in 50,000 million Americans will die from snakebite a year, which translates into about five or six people each year. Experts point out we are nine times more likely to die from a lightning strike than from a snakebite. But for those of us who dislike or have a phobia of snakes, statistics make little difference.
Yet, snake tales are popular
This most recent snake journey started when I discovered a four-foot-plus skin of a black rat snake in my yard.
Out of curiosity, I checked this newspaper to see how snake encounters were covered through the Herald's century of reporting.
I found tons of snake stories, some local, others culled from news wires or other media reports from across the world. In the 1920s and '30s, this newspaper published numerous advertisements and articles about snake skin leather shoes, belts and glove cuffs. Local news stories included startling encounters with Coast snakes, and other tidbits appeared in such odd places as the 1920s newspaper serial on the popular dog, Rin-Tin- Tin. This snakey observation comes from the latter: “The instant Murtagh had turned the corner, his suavity had dropped from him like a sloughed snake skin. Now the inner man was seen, hard, foxy, covert.”
Another favorite is a drawing from the NEA Service that shows a snake skin hanging out of a tree hole that a bird has turned it into nesting material. Explains the 1928 caption, “The Great Crested Fly Catcher, with rare exceptions, decorates his nest with a cast snake skin. It is generally supposed that this is done for protection.”
I located too many old Herald snake stories to share them all, but here's two more, one from 1932 headline, “Boy Chased Up Tree by Moccasin Snake,” about two brothers near Vancleave. Explains the Herald:. “Walker, hearing the screams of his brother Preston, who had gone for a tramp in the woods, rushed with a broad ax where he found Preston in a tree and the big reptile on the ground. “He killed the big snake which measured 46 inches in length and found inside of it a rat snake 38 inches long which the larger reptile had swallowed.”
And then there is this factoid from 1956: “Annual value of a single black snake is approximately $3.75 in rodent control.” That would be about $35 today. In snake summary, there is the good and bad. But isn't that a ditto for most things we encounter in life?
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.