Yesterday while running in the forest preserve where our cross country team first held races more than forty years ago, I started out on a section of path where the sun was beating down on the earth. Most of us don’t stop to think about how the sun warms the ground. But creatures that live at that level know the intimacy of contact with the soil.
To my pleasant surprise, I found a milk snake stretched out on the path. It laid there still as a stick. It’s beautiful pale markings were bathed in sunlight. For a few moments I studied its pale coloring and recalled how few times I’ve actually seen milk snakes in the wild. Some people like to capture or breed them and keep them as pets. I think they belong where they’re found. In the fields and forests.
The tarsnake of snakes
That’s one of the tarsnakes of creatures from the wild. They’re worth far more out there than in some aquarium or cage. But it is the acquisitive nature of some people is to take wild things prisoner for their own pleasure. I ask myself: What right do we have to do that other than for scientific study to learn what they need to survive in the wild?
Having seen enough snakes crushed by tires or feet over the years, I wondered whether the milk snake I found on the trail was dead or alive. Usually a snake that sees a tall human standing over it will slink away. Not this snake. So I reached down to touch it. No movement. Then again. This time it snapped into action and crawled into the tall grass next to the trail. It was a beautiful, amazing creature.
It had been sleeping in the sun. Taking a solar nap. Soaking up the rays. Getting its Vitamin D. Picking up warmth for its blood.
I hated to disturb it, but I also did not trust that the next person on the trail would be so impressed or so kind as to let the snake abide in its domain. Some people hate snakes. Fear them. Others run them over if they get the chance. If kids on mountain bikes came tearing along they might not even see the snake before it was too late. In all my years of running and riding, I’ve seen too many dead snakes to count.
The strangest encounter of them all was the day I met up with a guy in a cowboy outfit that had killed several snakes and wanted to show them to me.
Perhaps the fear of snakes is native to some. The classic tale of the serpent in the Garden of Eden depicts a serpentine creature that talks Eve and then Adam into following its instructions to eat a forbidden fruit. It quotes the literal word of God to sound convincing, but its objective is to take control of the couple through manipulation. For centuries that story has been used to warn people into obedience. But Adam and Eve were obedient to a flaw. They fell for the oldest and longest trick in the book, using what appeared to be religious authority to confuse their conscience and take them under its control.
Later when John the Baptist and Jesus confront the religious authorities for their manipulation of the masses through legalistic tradition, they brand them a “brood of vipers” for their collectively conspiratorial methods and lashing out at all those who oppose them.
So the real “snakes” in this world––and we are speaking allegorically here–– are often the people who claim to speak for God.
But in most cases there is nothing to fear from snakes in the grass as long as we stay alert and don’t trod on them by accident. Granted, we don’t want to mess with poisonous snakes of any kind. For snakes, that evolutionary adaptation is both a weapon of defense and a tool of predatory power.
After the snake moved off I continued on my run, snaking my way around the rutted dirt paths where our cross country course curls through the woods. It has been a while since I ran there and this time around I marveled at the ups and downs of that trail. I won quite a few races there, and have watched quite a few more over the years.
Snaking through the woods
The course that we used to run is only used in part these days. There’s a big field where the forest preserve district expanded the property and that’s where the starting line sits these days. I ran across the field too. It was soaked after several rains and my shoes took a muddy beating. But that’s cross country in any season. You take what comes.
Toward the end of the run I glanced down at the trail and saw another strong pattern on the ground. It was a feather from a Cooper’s hawk. I’ve seen them fly down the woodland corridor ahead of me on several occasions. This feather was from a juvenile, rich in brown and white.
I wasn’t running fast. Nor was I running far. Just about four miles with birds calling and snakes crawling. For all the reasons that we run and ride, these are some of the best: to get outside means to feel good inside. That’s reality. And that’s always enough for me.