Skyline, Summer - 2004

By Diane Pendola

The Eye Of The Snake

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At the hermitage; between the two planter boxes; caught in the net I had covered the strawberries with to protect them from browsing deer; a rattlesnake rattles as I walk past. He is completely entangled in the webbing, or at least the front half of his body. The back half is free to rattle, but the thin black lines of netting have been twisted so tightly against his body that they cut into him, not just in one place, but over and over. He looks me in the eye. But he cannot move his head, immobilized by the vicious nylon thread. "Oh, I'm so sorry..."   I say to him, I mumble over and over to myself, like a chant, like some deep pleading with the powers of life for release- not only for him, but also for myself, for the one who inadvertently laid this death trap upon his native ground.

In my hand I hold the long red handle of the brush-cutters I have been using to snap off the roots of poison oak, the bodies of blackberry brambles. I attempt to cut the threads away from the snake's body, speaking gently to him, "let me see...let me see if I can help you..."   Looking me in the eye he ceases to rattle. Hope rises. Perhaps I can free him. He can't strike at me. I could work at freeing his body. But the cutters are too dull for this fine work. The threads are wound so tight that some are buried in the snake's flesh. The snake continues to look me in the eye. Again he rattles.

I know he won't survive. I could leave him to linger in this life and death struggle where death is sure to win. I could turn my back now and walk away. "I'm so sorry,"   I say softly again. "I'm so sorry,"   I say as I open the mouth of the cutter blade, my hands on the long red handles. The cold metal shears find the base of his diamond shaped head, hold the thumb-sized cord of his life in their open vortex that I now snap closed. The snake's mouth opens; exposing fangs and an instinct for life that struggles even while the severed body coils and rattles, coils and rattles.

I leave to go to the house, fetch a shovel and my smudge stick. I have adopted this Native American ritual: lighting sage, releasing pungent smoke into the air, evidence of life and breath dissolving into life and breath. I return with these and a pair of tin snips. I easily cut the main part of the webbing away from the snake and then carefully go to work on snipping each wound thread free of the body. I do not risk working near the head- those fangs still looking for a final resting place. The body, grotesquely headless, spreads itself upon the ground as if to slither away, then coils, attempts to rattle and raise its bloody stump as though to strike.

I light the smudge stick;  let myself pray in words that have no meaning for human ears to hear. I allow the smoke to float over the length of the snake's body, watching the smoke rise, the spirit rise. Everything is connected to everything else. Everything is inhabited by spirit, by breath that moves in and through and all around us. As I watched the smoke my mind touched the spirit of snake. I felt him come inside. I wonder, can you feel him?

With the shovel I dug into the red earth. I buried the head of the snake. It's a good thing to do. There is still venom in those fangs. I left the body wrapped 'round the rock I placed as a marker. The body was still moving when I left. Perhaps, last evening he became nourishment for fox. Perhaps now he's the strength in the hawk's wing.

Recently, in the news, there was a story about a whale, caught in a strong and unforgiving net off the east coast of the United States. The whale was a Right Whale (so named because it was the "right" whale to kill during whaling times, ranging in size from 45 to 60 feet and weighing up to 80 tons). This was a juvenile member of an endangered species, with less than 350 North Atlantic Right Whales remaining today. The polypropylene line that was wrapped around the body was gradually burning through skin, blubber and muscle. The rescuers were not giving it much hope for survival, but even so, teams of people were giving their time, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, to attempt to free the suffering animal.

I refer to myself these days as a reluctant goatherd. I entered reluctantly on this path of maintaining, containing, chasing, cajoling and otherwise entering the lives of cantankerous goats! And yet it seems to me one of the truly sustainable alternatives for my human participation in the restoration of our forest health. Goats need to be managed. They can be destructive. But managed properly they can reduce fire danger, increase bio-diversity, improve soil health, bring back native plants that have been overwhelmed by non-native species and even improve watershed quality! So I am becoming a goatherd, moving from reluctance to enthusiasm, with a lot of help from my friend, Mike, and assistance from a very knowledgeable woman named An Peischel who has a PHD in rangelands management and loves her goats!

My encounter with the snake reminded me of this story. It reminded me of all the unintentional ways, unconscious ways, that we do harm. I could speak of the many Right Whales, not to mention Humpbacks and Sperm Whales, dolphins and porpoises, that are entangled, wounded and often killed each year by fixed lines extending from fishing equipment like nets or lobster pots. I could speak of countless examples of the devastating consequences of our human behavior on the other-than-human members of our earth community. Or I could speak about the over-whelm of too much bad news concerning our human impact on our planet, not to mention the desperate state of our inter-human affairs.

But I want to speak of something else. I want to speak of what touches my heart. I want to speak of the kindness that unlatches some locked door in me. I want to speak of the human kindness of strangers who become friends in a common effort to serve life; to save life. And I want to speak of the bond that connects us to other-than-human life forms in this world.

In researching the whale story, I read about a man off the coast of New Zealand who had successfully rescued an entangled Humpback Whale. Swimming out to the whale in his scuba gear he made eye contact to let the whale know he was there. "As I swam up I could see it drop its head and thought it was going to dive, but what it did was to lift its tail and lay dead still while I cut off the float and the last of the rope. After the whale was freed, it came up right beside the boat, where it stayed for a few moments, before lifting its tail and slowly swimming away".

This is what I want to speak of to you, to myself. I want to speak of that loving kindness of which we humans are so impeccably capable. This is what I want to know. This is what I want to see. This is what I want to serve. I want to speak of this thread that has woven me so intricately into its love that the eye of the whale and the human eye are conduits of the Light from which we both derive our life.

I want to speak of the fireman who risked his life to save a mother cat that had re-entered the burning building not once, or twice but four times, as evidenced by her burned, but surviving, kittens. I want to speak of the drowning scuba-diver, cramping in the cold waters of the sea, who sent out his call into the Great Unknown for help and felt a nudge at his side as a dolphin appeared and proceeded to carry him safely to shore. I want to speak of the gorilla, oblivious to the horror of the people who have just witnessed a small child fall into her cage, gently taking the child into her great arms and tenderly carrying him to the door of her pen where a zookeeper would soon appear. I want to speak of the armies of volunteers cleaning up miles of oil soaked coastline, patiently tending to each tar-laden sea bird, hearts opened by the pleading in a gentle seal's gaze. I want to speak of those watching and waiting beside the beached whales, bathing them through the night in cool water, with the hope beyond hope that when the tide rises they will be carried back to sea.

We hear so much these days that defeats us, angers us, grieves us. But what moves us is love. What unlocks the door to our heart is our sense of connection, our ancient bond to the Light that shines in the eyes of every creature. In this Light we are kin. I hope beyond hope, that the tide of light is rising, the undertow of darkness is receding, and that the wave of loving kindness is building towards a great awakening on dawn lit shores.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always-
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

(T.S. Elliot Four Quartets-)

©Diane Pendola, Summer 2004. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or sharing with interested persons as long as the copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not print it in any other publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without express written permission of the author.

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