First, a Bear Encounter
When I was six years old, we lived in rural Millis, Massachusetts. My favorite times were in nature. One time I stayed too late picking wild blueberries, and knew that mom would be mad. I wasn’t supposed to be late for dinner. So I took the shortcut home, through the woods. I wasn’t supposed to do that, either, but it was much faster than to go back through the end of the blueberry patch, past the cow pond, alongside the brook and up the steeply sloping path to the cow and horse pasture behind our home.
So as darkness was threatening, I hurried through the woods instead. I almost didn’t notice a large bear. Well, it was hard not to notice. Bears were the reason we weren’t supposed to go through the woods alone. I froze as I had been taught. And stared at the bear.
He or she was perhaps 15-20 feet away. He or she wasn’t staring back at me. Kind of sitting there, enjoying the evening air, not interested in me. Or pretending to not be interested, I wasn’t sure. I stayed frozen for perhaps 10 minutes, although it seemed much longer. I couldn’t remember the difference between upwind and downwind to know if the bear could smell me. Finally, the known risk of mom’s wrath was more urgent than some nebulous warnings about disinterested bears. So I bolted.
Made it home, didn’t tell parents
The bear didn’t follow. I ran out of the woods to the grassy field across from our house. In late summer, the browning grass was taller than I was. So once I was in it, I couldn’t see my way out. I kept jumping up and down like a rabbit/ cricket/ kangaroo/ puppet, to see over the tops of the grass and make sure I was still going in the right direction. Finally got home. Didn’t tell Mom or Dad. Didn’t want to get in worse trouble for running into a bear.
How dangerous are bears, really? Probably only if they are hungry, are threatened or attacked. What if that bear already had a tummy full of blueberries? What if a curious and scrawny, although tardy, six year old child was not appetizing? Perhaps that bear was upwind and could not smell me anyway. After all, it was up a slight slope. Perhaps bears do not have acute vision? Perhaps it was even a baby bear who didn’t hunt for itself? I couldn’t tell. It looked huge to me. Even in zoos, I had never been that close to a bear.
Bear Encounters Don’t Make the News if Children Don’t Tell
I bet there’s plenty of encounters with bears that don’t make the news because someone doesn’t tell their parents. Certainly not all encounters are deadly.
What about rattlesnakes?
It’s also true that not all rattlesnake encounters are deadly. Yet we have been trained to consider rattlesnakes as vicious, dangerous, even evil. What have these innocent snakes done to deserve a reputation like that? They have no feet. They are slow moving except to strike. With their beautiful intriguing patterned markings, flexible shape, and mode of travel and diet that is somewhat different than ours, perhaps they seem separate, alien.
It is time to question that alienation.
We are living with the consequences of the old paradigm of separation from nature. And the false beliefs we swallowed at an early age. As we become aware of the devastation to the ecological balance, deforestation, planetary warming, climate change emergencies perhaps we are hearing the warning bells that it is time to make a shift. The declining health of our planet follows centuries of our separation from nature. As Dorothy Maclean wrote, in To Honor the Earth, “Advanced thinkers are proposing this shift out of separation into oneness for all of our relationships.”
Are snakes really bad, evil, fearsome?
Our mythology casts snakes, especially rattlesnakes in a bad light. (Not so for other cultures.) Because they are different, does that make them bad? They are a part of the web of life, just as we are. They have their place in nature. They have fangs with something that is, in some snakes, poisonous to us. They don’t attack unless threatened. Like humans, they can smell fear, and it activates the protect/attack reflex. We do the same. We are just not as aware of how our reactions come from an ancient sense of smell. It’s called the reptilian brain for good reason.
What if snakes are sensitive to thoughts?
According to Kinship with All Life snakes are sensitive to thoughts. What are your thoughts about rattlesnakes? When I have talked even to my semi-enlightened friends, on the spiritual path, they still react with fear, revulsion. Some people think our brains are hardwired to fear snakes. Although Native Americans treat them with respect.
Kinship with All Life: “We are all interrelated in a common accord, a common purpose and a common good. We are members of a vast cosmic orchestra, in which each living instrument is essential to the complementary and harmonious playing of the whole.”
For this article, I even put the bear story first, because people aren’t as afraid of bears as snakes. I didn’t want you to avoid this post out of fear, aversion or loathing. What would have been your reaction to a title, “Encounter with a Rattlesnake”? Be honest. No one is watching. You might have assumed that I barely survived, out of courage, or luck? Bears also have a cuddly association with teddy bears, that snakes don’t.
Kinship with All Life
I first read Kinship With All Life, by J. Allen Boone around 1978. It was originally published in 1954. Mr. Boone became the caretaker for a famous movie dog. The dog became a spiritual teacher to the man. It has been a classic on the ethics and spiritual values of interspecies communication, as it recognizes the intelligence of all life. (See Bibliography for a synopsis). For me, it has been a beacon of new human relationships to Nature.
It has two chapters on rattlesnakes, with observations of rattlesnakes in relation to humans, both white and Native Americans. Here are some excerpts:
“The rattlesnakes were indeed selective. They were biting the white men, and they were extending almost complete immunity to the Indians…
“Almost everywhere I went there was vicious and relentless warfare going on between white men and rattlesnakes…But I could find no such warfare between the Indians and the rattlesnakes…
“My dog-trains-man sessions with Strongheart had shown me the trouble that unseen mental forces can cause in one’s contacts with animals… that one’s thinking, in all its nakedness, always precedes him and accurately proclaims his real nature and intention.”
A First Rattlesnake Encounter
In 1996, I was living in Grants Pass, Oregon. I was walking briskly in a park, along the turbulent Rogue River. It was a narrow but well-marked dirt path, with trees to my right towards the river, and the undergrowth of a steep slope of the embankment to my left. Suddenly, I heard the loud rattle of a rattlesnake. I froze.
With as little movement as possible, I looked cautiously for the source of the rattle. He/she was right next to my left leg, coiled in the brush, ready to strike, with his/her head about eight inches away from my bare calf. I counted the rattles, six.
I remembered the encounter with the bear. What was the same? Frozen again. What was different? I loved the concepts of Kinship with All Life. I decided to practice them.
I controlled my breathing and slowed it down. I recognized I had startled the snake and he/she was responding out of protection. So I extended my heart and apologized. The rattling continued for a little bit, then stopped. Even though the snake was coiled, motionless, still next to my leg, I realized it was no longer ready to strike. I focused on a deep, loving, peaceful meditation with it, and came to emptiness. The thought came, “What am I still doing here?” And then I bolted.
A Second Rattlesnake Encounter
I had an encounter with a diamond back rattlesnake in the Angeles National Forest July 21, 2019, when I was looking for potential workshop sites. He was large, about 5 feet long, coming across the road. Lenna, who was driving the car, veered and braked to avoid hitting him.
I asked her to park in the road to protect him from other rapidly moving traffic. However, I could see he was still in danger.￼ I got out of the car to be near him, as I knew I was taller and more visible to drivers. He made his way across a dirt parking lot. I was filled with awe and asked permission to photograph and film him at close range. He was exquisitely beautiful. I felt a heightened sense of connection and alertness to his every move, immersed in profound love and admiration for him. Fear never entered my mind, as my concern was only to ensure his safety. If anything, I felt as if I was in the presents of a Being beyond form.￼
At the end, he told me to turn off the camera. His message was that he represented the Deva of Rattlesnakes. They would guarantee the safety of everyone in my workshops in Southern CA, since I was unfamiliar with snakes, ticks, and other potential hazards. The love and sense of protection would be returned in kind.￼
I had to go home and reread Kinship With All Life, with two chapters on rattlesnakes. I seem to have absorbed the lessons. I spontaneously came from a place of kinship, “all are relations” as my Native sisters and brothers say. I am so grateful. This rattlesnake was truly a divine gift and teacher.
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