I saw the first snake while going to bathe in the shallow pools near where we had camped. A black and yellow garter snake sunning her body on the wide gray stones in the winding late-August trickle of a creek. I hopped to a bigger boulder to undress, startling the snake. She slithered off the rock into the water, undulating in the current. She went still in the underwater shade. I never knew that snakes swam in water. I come from a dry place.
Snake fear goes deep in our minds. I read that the fear of snakes is our oldest fear. Our oldest fear because snakes were the primary predator of primates. Hole, underside, bite, venom. I feel a deep down feeling looking at her circling around the rivulet. I know these slender snakes are harmless. But still I found it hard to get back in the water.
As a deep archetypal figure, snakes show up all throughout human myth-making. One of the first snakes that comes to my Catholicism-raised mind is the snake that gives Eve the forbidden apple of original sin. The encounter with this snake is what precipitates the descent from the world of pure spirit to an imperfect material world, a threshold crossed through the act of curiosity and desire. Adam and Eve are reborn into the world through this encounter with the snake.
Putting aside the dogmatic uses of this story, I think there’s a fundamental feeling of what it is to be a whole person, in the living world, not a spirit world. Maybe even the initiation into this living world. To meet the snake is to meet life, real life, the material world, and with that death. Hole, underside, bite, venom. To meet the snake is to confront the non-eternal qualities of being a living being—that is all of them.
The next day we travel to another swimming hole, where the threadbare creek opens up here into deep pools in the serpentine rock, burnt red, icey green, smooth and glassy, descends into underwater caves and caverns. The water is completely clear. In awe silently take off our clothes, drop our bags underneath the sparse shade, and swim off in different directions watching the charms of the living world revel in themselves
I swim to the shallow banks across the swimming hole and as I cross the banks I disturb several snakes from their perch in the watery grasses. I warm my body on the rock face and watch the snakes slither around shallow water. They move so incredibly, so suited for their environment, undulation, rhythm, current, crest, shelter. I breathe and I feel fear, but I do nothing about it. Just curiosity. The feeling of fear is almost like a tickle, it makes me feel alive, like jumping in cold water.
Fear is critical information that assures survival. It is embedded deep in us, in our reptilian brain. Snakes feel fear too. A compass for do this, don’t do this. As helpful as this fear can also be a preemptive turning away, a denial of the whole living world, our whole living selves. Land is not all joy, fertility, and flowers. Land is also flood, fallow, fire, predator, prey, long winters, and landslides. Conditions that we cannot control, conditions create deep fertility.
I wasn’t terribly afraid these snakes, but I felt a glimmer of a feeling I want to imprint, to initiate myself into. Rather than recoiling and avoiding things we don’t like/are fearful of, what happens when we hold them with openness, with curiosity?
I want to hold the fearful parts of life with more skill and grace. I want to love the freer, unproductive, bleeding, singing, crying, leaking, divining, intuitive, dreaming, revolting, lazy, disastrous parts of myself without turning away. And not just myself but the whole fearsome world. I am feeling the vast space revealed beneath fantasies of control and good-doing, awakening to the subterranean depths of actually facing the incalculable injustice and intractable destruction our present world is built on. I’ve been holding this real feeling in doses and bites, reaching into the fear, breathing.
I feel that this not turning away, this staying steady, this creates depth. Depth that feeds embodied ground for the building, the visioning, the channeling, the struggle. When we hold our sick and sad and don't belong and all alone and very scared, we allow sensation that carves tunnels, erodes caves, bores down into the earth. In the winter these depths gather rain, in the spring the snow melts in the high country and the creeks and river beds fill with water. Livingness flows through these depths, fish return, tadpoles hang on cavernous walls, snakes travel up the creek, devouring caddis flies and locusts. I am this whole earth body, dry land, snakes, crumbling cliff walls, depth, pools, poison algae, decay, fallow, roaring back to life.
I realized I had more I wanted to write about this trip to the delightful, deep Eel River! This is the last one though. This snakey journey on a snakey river had so much psycho-journeying potential around being with and even dancing with change, through facing fears, releasing from blind hope. And these last few weeks relentless smoke from the fires all around the Bay Area has certainly been an opportunity to practice. We made a flower essence on the last day there that I’ve been taking and sharing that I feel like captures some of these feelings of risk/bravery/facing collapse. Let me know if you’d like to try it, I love sharing essences.
I’m still figuring out what I’m really trying to do with this newsletter. I think it will be personal experience writing like this, but also maybe some entries that are more like sharing the mytho-poetic research I’m doing, maybe even sharing practices. Thanks for being here as I experiment, and as always your thoughts and questions are so welcome.
In closing I want to offer a prayer and acknowledgement of the recent passing of David Graeber. Last night I listened to some interviews with him over the years and read his original essay in Strike! on bullshit jobs from 2013. I want to thank him for the play, the recklessness, and the relentless expression of alternatives, for being really brave in seeing the absolute splendor of being alive and naming and resisting all the ways we are needlessly, violently enclosed from the real livingness of our world. Bless his passage and may his words and ideas spread into the expanse.
Ok and a lil Rilke:
“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children. Then in these swelling and ebbing currents, these deepening tides moving out, returning, I will sing you as no one ever has, streaming through widening channels into the open sea.”