I spend a lot of time in the the forests and fields near my home looking for animals to photograph in natural habitats, usually by rooting around beneath stones and logs and similar places. Many snakes are there.
But I live in western New York state, where we see no copperheads. Copperheads are officially listed in the field guides, but they’re far to the south of me, restricted in their range, and very rare. Same with our other venomous New York snake, the rattlesnake.
I’ve never seen either snake in the wild, nor come close. Nothing I’ve seen MAKES HUMAN-DAMAGING POISON IN ITS MOUTH. So, naturally, I’m in awe of such creatures, ignorant of them, and would be terrified of having my day ruined by being killed by one if I had to keep watch for them.
Mary Oliver’s prose poem, about stumbling upon a copperhead in her path near dusk, describes the experience of finding danger where you don’t expect it, and how theses experiences can make a person feel.
Though only the very rarest of copperhead bites results in death, they can mess you up bad. Here’s what’s likely to happen to you if you’re bitten: swelling, blurry vision, shortness of breath, incapacitation from excruciating pain, a whole lot of nausea, secondary infections, destruction of flesh near the bite, and in grisly scars. In other words, it’s a Life Event to avoid.
I’m struck by the similarities between the physiological symptoms of a copperhead bite, and the side effect risks of something else a person might experience, such as, for example, a year of chemotherapy treatments for chronic lymphoblastic leukemia.
It was during my year of chemo that I returned to Mary Oliver’s poem, and it rang a bell deep inside my experience of trying to survive cancer. The final line has come to be a defining phrase of my life. Observing the change she felt in herself after the snake held her with its gaze, and then retreated, Mary Oliver says this:
“When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.”
It’s true. It happened to me.
When the cancer that held me retreated and remitted, I was overcome with what I think Max Weber would call “enchantment” – a direct experience of the world not characterized by rationality or intellect, but almost entirely emotional and infused with a kind of magic. I found myself distracted to the point of feeling mesmerized by such common and banal things as speaking to a cashier, looking at trees moving in the wind, eating bread. Some days I would walk the half mile to my part time job and be in tears by the time I arrived if I heard a crow calling in the distance.
I was worried that I was losing my mind, so I asked my oncologist about it. He told me it’s “normal” and these heightened observations and emotions would fade over time. He was right. I’ve enjoyed years of remission now, and I’m no longer crying over the feel of the sun on my head or the taste of jam.
However, in May this year, I was in South Carolina, tromping through brush and flipping logs in a scrubby area beside the hotel where I was staying, hoping to locate and photograph whatever species of frog I’d heard trilling for a mate the night before.
I was bumbling around the way I do in New York, where there’s nothing to fear in the brush, shoving my hands in holes and tearing clumsily beneath roots.
And then suddenly it was there. I felt what I’d done, before my mind could name it: I’d blundered, stupidly, dangerously, into the copperhead, looming over it and actually knocking a stick across the long muscle of its body.
I’m so grateful for its self control and its reluctance to go to war with me. The hissing was so loud, amplified by the vibration of its tail against the dead leaves, the way a rattlesnake does on TV. The head rose up so quickly, high above the ground, hinged open to reveal the stark, brilliant white of the inside of its mouth.
I felt everything drop away from me. Adrenaline hammered into every cell capable of feeling, and everything inside went cold. I felt that I might actually pee.
It held me, just like in the poem, just like at the hospital, and when it slithered away I laughed hard, and then back in my hotel room the tears came. I thought I could smell the antiseptic sterility of the clinic and taste the metallic taste on my tongue after an infusion. The old panic and rage, the vibrating aliveness of the mundane details of my environment.
For days, after I met the copperhead, the thumb of fear was lifted.
You can hear me reading this essay at the cool multimedia storytelling Web site Cowbird: http://cowbird.com/story/46898/Lifted/