Contemplating an enormous shift in consciousness – death and rebirth
When we were kids, my older brother, Tom, and I snagged snakes out of water meter holes in Hutchinson, KS where we lived.
We mostly let them go, but on one of our adventures, unbeknownst to our mother, we planned to take home two for pets. Tom lifted the cover, and we dropped onto our bellies to peer into the mysterious underworld at the snake ball in the bottom.
Then I sat up and seized one of our shoeboxes as my part in our carefully constructed plan.
Tom scrutinized the writhing ball, grabbed a snake, and brought it squirming to the surface. He dropped it into the box, and I slammed on the lid before it could escape.
We went through the process one more time, and each had a garter snake to take home.
We didn’t know, of course, the snake ball meant mating time for garters, nor that females could harbor the sperm a long time before fertilization.
Tom named his Herkimer, and I named mine Grace. She had an orangey-yellow stripe running from head to tail and a pale-yellow stripe along each side.
Her skin reminded me of a checkerboard with black rectangles on a greenish background, and when I stroked her, she felt surprisingly dry.
I wasn’t great at feeding her, though, because I felt sorry for the bugs I dropped into her shoebox. Since neither snake ate well, with Mom’s strong encouragement, we eventually returned them to their underworld, hopefully to create more of their species.
A few years later, after my parents divorced, Tom moved in with my grandparents on their farm, and my mom, little brother, and I moved into my great-grandparents’ old farmhouse about a mile away, a difficult transition, a kind of death and rebirth for our family.
By that time, snakes didn’t hold the same fascination. One day when I was throwing wood down the coal chute into our basement, I spotted a black rat snake, at least seven feet long, in the woodpile, so I did what any self-respecting young woman would do. I screamed.
Tom said he heard me all the way down to my grandparents’ house and later comforted me by saying I probably scared the poor snake more than it did me. I doubted that.
Fast forward to this spring: On our way home after exploring a Comb Ridge canyon, Ted and I were discussing the Navajo belief that the ridge is part of Big Snake.
Robert S. McPherson, Ph.D., in his book, Comb Ridge and Its People: The Ethnohistory of a Rock, explains that in the Navajo tradition, Big Snake, now frozen into rock, is a Holy Being from the creation era and requires our respect, even reverence, because of its tremendous power.
One elder, in an interview with Dr. McPherson, said, “Comb Ridge was not a rock when it was created but was alive and moved around.
“The air pockets were created to give it air to breathe and to keep it alive. They are a part of its body like lungs through which it breathes. These air pockets were placed along its rib cage.
“When it was created it was little, like a baby, then it grew. It became very big. All the rock formations were alive at one time.”
In the middle of our discussion about Big Snake, Ted stopped the car, grabbed his camera, and hopped out. A striped whip snake stretched across the road behind us.
Since living snakes are considered the offspring of Big Snake, I was taken aback by the synchronicity.
Then, in May, one of my Kansas friends texted me out of the blue, warning me not to get bitten by a snake while walking in Westwater. I didn’t think much about it because in all the years I’d been walking the canyon, I’d never seen a snake.
However, one morning on our climb to an upper trail, Oggie plopped down under a tree. I went on, and at the top, I turned around to whistle for her.
When I turned back around, a snake was sunning on the trail in front of me. Startled, I checked to make sure it had round eyes and no rattles and snapped a couple of pictures, missing the end of its tail in my hurry.
As it slithered toward a juniper I went back for Oggie, and by the time we returned, it had disappeared.
I didn’t know then that bull snakes, when threatened, rear up, flatten their heads, shake their tails, and hiss, rattling a piece of cartilage at the end of their glottis, so they sound remarkably like a rattlesnake. This one, fortunately, had an easy escape route.
Although Tom and I grew up with the story of Adam and Eve, we didn’t understand the symbolism of the serpent when we went snake hunting.
Even as teenagers in our random snake encounters, we didn’t comprehend that the serpent catalyzed an enormous shift in consciousness, a death and rebirth for humanity.
I’ve been contemplating those kinds of shifts as we’ve turned the corner toward summer.
Whether we like it or not, in the midst of the “new normal” and violence, we’re shedding the skins of our old lives, but we too have the potential to transform into something greater if we respect one another, the earth, and her creatures, including snakes, which, as the Navajo know, are beings of tremendous power.