The first time I recall encountering a snake in the wild was at Girl Scout camp. I was 7 years old.
My father had died about three months before and, at my uncle’s urging, my mother had moved what was left of our family from Baltimore to central Kentucky, closer to relatives. While staying at the rambling farm house of my aunt and uncle awaiting our move into a new home, my father’s mother—my only grandparent—died. My mother’s aunt and closest confidante suffered a stroke. There seemed to be no end to the calamity.
I loved staying with my cousins at their farm. But I was unmoored from all that I knew. My father’s absence seemed to confuse me less than the prospect of starting life over in a new town. I hated leaving my friends. On the other hand, my dad—a professor during the academic year and a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey during the summers—hadn’t been around much anyway. Did I miss him? I wasn’t sure yet.
As summer arrived, my cousins were preparing to go to camp. My mother and aunt (Charleen, the boys’ ready rescuer at The Last Resort) evidently thought it would be a good idea to send my sister and me, too, perhaps so we could be around children our age in a more normal environment, or perhaps to allow my mother a little privacy to grieve.
I was technically too young to attend the two-week camp, but the administrators had given me special permission. Everyone kept a watchful eye on me. I was not only the youngest camper; I was most certainly the tiniest.
But no one needed to worry. I loved every minute of it. I loved being deep in the woods of Morgan County. I loved sleeping outdoors in a tent modeled after a Conestoga wagon. I loved swimming in the brownish green water of the lake. And I particularly loved the hikes along the mountain trails.
So when one of our counselors first pointed out “Blackie,” the camp’s “pet” black racer, I was mesmerized. He was enormous—at least five or six feet long in my memory. It was a lighthearted moment. The 8- and 9-year-old veteran campers around me ooohed and ahhhhhed and called to him affectionately. Blackie took all the commotion in stride.
I was smitten. I became that child who always volunteered to handle snakes that were brought into the classroom. At home, I gently shooed the garter snakes out of the way of the lawn mower or the hedge clippers.
I can’t remember if we saw any other snakes that particular summer, although I encountered several over the succeeding years. (The image of the heavy rat snake coiled around the top of the latrine just above the seat is burned in my memory.) And I was fully aware that during every hike at least two counselors carried “snake sticks” and hatchets in case we came across a less companionable snake that needed to be disposed of for everyone’s safety.
All of these memories came to my mind recently after having yet another conversation about snakes with two friends who share a sincere fear of the reptiles. A large corner of their consciousness seems to be devoted to their phobia. During our conversation, I wondered aloud way I reacted so differently. After brief reflection, I’m sure it’s because snakes were first introduced to me as friends, family even. Important wildlife that we should not disturb. That we should respect.
During a recent paddle around our small lake, I experienced yet another flashback to Camp Judy Layne. I tucked my lightweight canoe into a cove deep in the woods, and the heavy vegetation and woodland smells transported me to my favorite childhood camp. After a dreadfully long stretch of dark and dreary days here in the Bluegrass, brilliant sunlight illumined the black oak leaves and the purple ironweed.
As I paddled out of the cove, I could see bluegill swimming just beneath the surface as if they, too, had been longing for the warmth of the sun. Several Great Blue Heron swooped and cackled at me, warning me away from their supper. Dinner-plate sized turtles didn’t bother to leave their posts on downed logs, daring me to disturb their sunbathing.
Perhaps, at some unconscious level, I learned at a tender age that the woods welcome us when our spirit has been wounded. That escaping into the woods can soothe the soul. The abundance of life there somehow gives back just what we need. Our personal afflictions can’t alter nature’s rhythms and cycles.
Even the snakes have a role and a certain majesty. And somehow that comforts me rather than frightening me.