Without a Tighter Breathing

Adventures in snake handling

But never met this fellow

Attended or alone

Without a tighter breathing

And zero at the bone.

-Emily Dickinson, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”

When the basement exploded, we were studying snakes. Teachers temporarily in the role of students, we sat in rows of metal folding chairs in the education building of our local nature center. A visiting herpetologist stood before us, flanked by glass terraria. Burlap bags with knotted drawstrings undulated on the floor at his feet. He had already opened several of these bags, lifting from each a snake, which he discussed at length before placing it into one of the glass containers. The venomous species—cottonmouth, copperhead, prairie rattler—he held expertly, just behind the head with one hand while controlling the writhing length with his other. The nonvenomous he allowed the freedom to twine around his arms and torso as he pointed out their characteristics. Outside, a backhoe rumbled and growled, excavating space for an addition to the building, which would double its display and classroom spaces. Neither the workmen outside nor we inside knew that the hoe had fractured a gas line and that natural gas was filling the basement beneath us, working its way toward the furnace pilot light at the far end.

Snakes constituted only a small segment of our curriculum that summer, but they absorbed a disproportionate chunk of our mental energy. We students were a cadre of elementary and middle school teachers who had been awarded grants to participate in a six-week summer course and year of monthly follow-up classes focusing on the flora and fauna of Nebraska. Through hours of hiking within the nature center’s three hundred acres and miles of field trips throughout the state, we learned to recognize and intelligently discuss our state’s trees and herbaceous plants; ferns, mosses, and fungi; birds, insects, and spiders; fish, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.

But the reptiles posed a special problem: we instinctively recoiled from them—the worst possible body language for introducing them later to our impressionable and observant students. Not that we shared a unified response. For example, a red-haired sixth-grade teacher, who clearly prided himself on being hip, became manically chatty, alternating bursts of staccato commentary with squirrel-like chuckling. The bravest among us just briefly startled, the sort of body reflex that makes you laugh in embarrassment at the higher brain’s momentary loss of control and then get on with business—in this case, identifying breed and evaluating context. A sweet-faced nun, on the other hand, turned stony and terse, snapping at anyone who spoke to her while a snake was within sight. (Once, when she thought she was alone with the Center’s captive black rat snake, I heard her threaten to strangle it with her bare hands.) The eldest of our group, an otherwise fearless woman who looked like Willa Cather, seemed to slip outside of reality, her eyes wild in her opal white face. She didn’t lose consciousness but remained mute and disconnected while we took turns, in pairs, helping her walk it off. The rest of us fell variously along the spectrum.

I ranked somewhere on the fearful side. The jolt I felt on encountering a snake had the muscle-buzz and chest constriction of electric shock. My retinas turned photographic, recording an image of the reptile in complementary colors that projected onto my eyelids whenever I closed them for minutes afterward. I tasted metal and heard the words of those around me as if spoken through a cardboard tube. But in my case, all those sensations, except the after-image, passed in the time it takes to say, Gotcha.

The eastern edge of Nebraska, where I grew up, has no native poisonous snakes, so my fear response offered no advantages. From my earliest memories, my dad worked to help me overcome it, calling me out to see every garter snake or bull snake he came upon in his gardening and lawn work. Bull snakes matched the leaf mulch beneath the forsythia, where he often found them; I sometimes had trouble distinguishing their spotted forms against his leather gloves. Yellow stripes traced the lengths of the garter snakes from their necks to tail tips, defining every twist and writhe as they twined between his fingers and circled his wrist. To me, they looked braided, like a church-camp lanyard. He handled them all with the sort of caution one uses with rare and precious items. He never challenged me to touch them or suggested that doing so might take courage. He simply offered them up as something wonderful, so that feigning appreciation—even to the point of stroking the scales with an index finger—seemed necessary. Their dry, cool surfaces surprised me every time, as did the ripples of movement beneath. Even when I thought I’d learned to expect this odd effect, my expectations fell short of the reality, until the discrepancy itself became a source of fascination. But if fascination took the edge off repulsion, it didn’t quite banish it.

One day, when I was around the age of six, as Dad showed me the tiny fangs of a garter snake and explained their relative harmlessness, I realized an error in one of my fundamental assumptions. I had combined the verb to strike with images of quick flickering forked tongues and come to the conclusion that the touch of a snake’s tongue was instantly, electrically fatal. I caught on to my mistake without saying anything to expose it, but my ignorance shamed me. I began to pay more attention to what Dad was saying about the reptile of the moment, and that, too, tempered my anxiety.

My father’s influence might have had a more positive effect on me had it not been balanced by a family story involving his mother. One day, the story goes, my grandmother went down into our root cellar to get potatoes for dinner. A bit later, she called up to my mother, “Marie, come down her for a minute, will you?” When Mother joined her, Grandma bent over the potato sack and opened it wide. “Look in there. Is that a snake I’m seeing? It doesn’t feel like a potato.” Indeed, my mother’s younger eyes discerned the thick coils of a bull snake looped over the tubers. Her suspicions confirmed, Grandma simply scooped up the animal with both hands, and, keeping it stretched full length to control it, she carried it out and released it in our garden.

The story was remembered and repeated as a humorous illustration of Grandma’s characteristic unflappability. But to appreciate the story, you also had to understand that snakes typically elicit a hysterical reaction. The lessons of family lore go deep, and I thought of that story every time Mother sent me to the cellar on an errand. In those formative years, for every actual reptile encounter that my dad guided me through, I must have had fifty imaginary confrontations with Grandma’s bull snake. It still waits for me in every dark, root-scented recess.

Each of my fellow students in the nature science course operated from his or her own store of childhood experiences and family legends. The conversations we shared along the trail indicated that in regard to reptiles, at least, this lore was negative. If I recall correctly, in our collective experience, snake sightings had interrupted or completely aborted picnics, softball games, children’s birthday parties, a romantic tryst, a graduation reception, a church service, and several Halloween pumpkin-gathering events. Settings and circumstances varied from tale to tale, but the assumption that snakes are valid cause for panic remained a constant. To a person, we needed practice in repressing our most immediate reactions, so snake handling became the leitmotif of the summer. Even when the day’s lesson focused on prairie dogs or gymnosperms, our instructor insisted we spend time before and after class, as well as any moments we might salvage from lunch break, physically engaged with one or another of the nature center’s captive nonvenomous specimens.

The western hognose was a favorite both because ours happened to be a small one and because this species almost never bites. It relies, instead, on elaborate imitations of more aggressive and dangerous breeds. When threatened, it flattens its neck and rears its head like a cobra. If that doesn’t frighten off its attacker, it forms a coil and shivers its tail like a rattlesnake—though, lacking the rattler’s specially adapted terminal scales, it makes no sound. Its last line of defense is literally to roll over and play dead, mouth agape and tongue lolling. This is its final trick. If you call its bluff and turn it upright, it goes belly up again, for as many times as you care to test it.

It’s hard to watch a hognose go through this three-act drama without sensing its desperation and warming to it at least a little. Especially in that final routine, when it exposes its belly repeatedly (as if you might not notice that a dead snake can’t keep flipping over), its vulnerability can be touching. Each of us—even the most terrified—could eventually hold the inert hognose in our hands for long moments without shuddering.

Eventually, after building courage with several other docile reptiles, we had to face the challenge in the corner cage: a black rat snake. It was as thick and shiny as a bicycle-tire inner tube and long enough to wrap an adult arm in coils from wrist to shoulder. The wrapping process transpired in seconds while you focused on controlling the head with a firm, but not damaging, grip. Then, each coil tightened like a blood pressure cuff but with the wringing motion of the childhood arm-torture game we called “Indian Burn.” Trying to free yourself was useless; any effort to pull the coils away only intensified the constrictions. Especially in a situation like our class, where the whole point was to demonstrate ease, there was no option but to endure until the snake chose to relax.

What I endured during the wait was not pain, really, but discomfort fraught with the anticipation of pain—an irrational conviction that this time the pressure on my arm would continue to build to the point of hemorrhage and permanent nerve damage. I knew better. I understood that the force a rat snake uses to suffocate field mice and fledgling birds is not a threat to humans, but that twisting grip was more potent, in the moment, than knowledge. Further complicating the discomfort, I felt an eerie fascination for such intense flesh-to-flesh attentions from another species. Neither fur nor feather cushioned its surface, and unlike any other contact I have shared with a wild thing, its duration was completely beyond my control. I never experienced the rat snake’s grasp without imagining the last living sensations of its prey.

On the day the basement blew, our guest speaker intrigued us as thoroughly as did the specimens he brought with him. We expected him to demonstrate ease with reptiles, of course, but his admiration for them—his worshipful regard for their physical characteristics and unique behaviors—took us by surprise. He responded to each as a doting mother responds to her firstborn. When relating general herpetological information, he maintained professionalism, but when he turned to the individuals in their burlap sacks, his whole mien melted into tenderness: velvet voice, sheeny eyes, soothing gestures of hands and fingers. During my long effort to develop tolerance for snakes, I had not imagined an appreciation of them so richly nuanced and, to all appearances, so emotionally fulfilling.

At first, I thought his adoration resulted from the depth and breadth of his understanding. The few facts I knew—those legendary elements that fed my fear—seemed negligible in comparison to the richer, fuller stories he told. I filled pages of my notebook with a compendium of charming surprises: a male copperhead hoping to attract a specific female rubs his chin on the ground like a shy schoolboy twirling a boot toe in the dust; the musk copperheads release when touched smells like cucumbers; cottonmouths are born with a tail tip that looks like a colorful worm, which they use like bait for luring minnows until they are capable of hunting larger prey. But my pen trailed to a stop when he told us this about rat snakes: beneath their jet-black scales, their skin may be yellow, white, or red.

I had no idea what our rat snake’s skin color was. Although by then it had wrapped me numerous times in the most intimate cross-species grasp that I could imagine surviving, I had never looked at it closely enough to discern skin beneath its scales. I hadn’t even known there was skin beneath the scales.

It occurred to me, in that moment, that I had approached all of my serpent-handling practice as a process of separation. Tolerance meant removing myself emotionally, exposing myself as little as possible to the creature’s physical reality. I curtailed my perceptions—seeing, feeling, thinking as little as possible. But surely the herpetologist didn’t come to his appreciative grace simply by amassing facts. He opened himself unguardedly to the profound otherness of his subjects. Everything in his manner convinced me of that.

Another realization attached itself to these thoughts: throughout my childhood, Dad was trying to foster that openness in me, but I had used his lessons to practice the art of closing down. I wanted to show the enthusiasm that pleased him, because I had a child’s sensitivity to the good will behind his concern for my fears. So I channeled my energy and attention toward behaving as if those fears didn’t exist. That involved pretending the snake didn’t exist, even as I slid my finger along its patterned surface. At the time, of course, I had no idea this was my internal strategy. I think I came close to realizing it the day I learned that forked tongues aren’t electrically charged, but I never quite broke the pattern. Even this summer, to demonstrate tolerance, I had relied on distancing.

It’s possible I recall that train of thought as a cataclysmic epiphany because just as I grasped its significance, the floor cleaved open. A concussion lifted us from our seats and tossed us left and right from center, our chairs clattering after us. I registered the explosion’s sound as a blinding blow to the inside of my skull, but I retained an after-image of the floorboards separating and rising outward from a linear vacancy that bisected the room lengthwise. Like double doors admitting a furious visitor, the floor gaped wide then slammed shut again in the nanosecond before the blast short-circuited my sensory preceptors.

I did not lose consciousness though I moved through an instant of black silence before arriving amid the screams and confusion. Colleagues and furniture lay strewn along the two opposite walls. We checked one another and ourselves for other signs of injury—no one was inert or bleeding significantly—cautiously regained our footing, and exchanged frantic questions and speculations. Just as we realized that the two people who had been seated nearest the door were missing, they climbed back in through the shredded screen. Before we had time to greet them with our relief, a man in scorched clothing rushed in and ordered us to clear the building. We intended to obey, but in dream-world detachment from time and logic, we lingered instead, marveling at how the floor had fallen more or less back into place.

Our actual evacuation of the building is lost from my memory, which picks up at the point when we stood in the parking lot, aware that, although we were fine, several of the construction workers were seriously injured and emergency responders were on the way. We were, in a sense, more than fine, with adrenalin sharpening our senses and emboldening our spirits. Maybe our collective body chemistry is responsible for what happened next, but I don’t think so. I believe that the herpetologist had, throughout the morning, affected others with some version of the insight that he triggered in me. I believe that under his influence, most of us felt the need to atone in some way for our various forms of reptile resistance—for our history of blindness to the beauty he celebrated. Someone remarked, “If we don’t get the snakes out before the firemen arrive and seal off the building, they’re doomed.”

And that was it. We had our mission: save the speaker’s many specimens and all those in the nature center’s collection, as well. The window of opportunity was narrow—perhaps mere moments with emergency vehicles en route. Human needs might only briefly absorb the attention of those with the authority to stop us.

I’m not saying we acted wisely. The building’s structure was obviously compromised; for all we knew, even as we reentered flames were licking away at crucial supports. Wisely or not, we acted as a community of converts, at one in our appreciation for and commitment to the reptiles. Expert converts at that, capable of identifying each species and handling it appropriately for its unique characteristics, and capable of locating and calmly recapturing those few individuals (nonvenomous, as it happened) set free by the concussion and of transferring those still in damaged terraria back into their drawstring bags. Then we carried them, one by one—bagged or in undamaged glass tanks—out of the danger zone. To remain unseen, we moved in and out through a door on the side of the building, which abutted the forest. That meant trekking down a long, narrow trail to a safely distant spot deep in the ravine, then going back and doing it again, with another bag or tank and its vibrant, vital contents.

To me, the most striking aspect of the process was its lack of drama. I can’t speak to what others were feeling, but we were all behaving with the calming solicitude of emergency medical technicians. I overheard several of my classmates (was the nun among them?) whispering encouragement to the snakes currently in their care. Otherwise, all was silent efficiency.

By the time the fire trucks arrived, the building was empty. We stood panting and sweat-streaked in the ravine, clustered around a collection of reptiles, to whom we now seemed mystically related. Confidently akin. Softly, so as not to further traumatize the rescued, we congratulated one another on our accomplishment.

About the Author

Gladys Haunton

Gladys Haunton has taught courses for impaired and institutionalized adults as well as college courses in writing and literature at Creighton University, Nebraska Methodist College, and Iowa Western Community College. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Hunger Mountain, South Dakota Review, Concho River Review, turnrow, and elsewhere.

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