“God’s country…” People use this phrase to describe the eroded, colorful canyons of the desert Southwest. An area of intense natural beauty, it also happens to be home to scorpions, rattlesnakes, and Gila monsters, poisonous creatures that evoke a mixture of fear and repulsion among many humans. I understand the discomfort, but I prefer to take a different approach, one which says, “If these creatures make their home in ‘God’s country,’ aren’t they likely to be part of the family of God?”
My first rattlesnake encounter was in California’s Eureka Valley, a rugged, yet delicate landscape bathed daily in fire and air. Ten minutes out of camp, hiking toward the open mouth of a side canyon, I was brought up short by two bursts of snapping sounds that cut sharply through the baking stillness. A few feet before me, motionless in the dappled shade of a creosote bush, a four-and-a-half-foot Mojave rattlesnake (Crotulus scululatus), sat poised and alert.
Fear demanded I retreat, but curiosity, awe, respect, and something akin to affection — for I believe in a spirit that connects us to all life — urged me to stay, or even approach. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I told myself. Intellectually, I knew I was not “prey” to this creature, and “It’s probably afraid of me,” I thought. My thinking made sense, but thinking had little effect on the tightness taking hold in my belly.
The rattlesnake was still, intent upon me. I had never seen a creature so motionless. I’d heard many things about rattlesnakes. An acquaintance once described them as “honorable” — they gave clear messages and were not malicious. I’d read that in half the cases in which rattlesnakes struck they did not inject their venom. Their rattle could be interpreted as a warning, a reminder — in the spirit of Robert Frost – that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Rationally, I knew this animal was not evil, but reason only scratched at the surface of an encounter that included the mythic, the numinous, and the magical.
In these dimensions, Crotulus was not simply an inhabitant of the southwestern deserts. This was also an engagement with one of the greatest actors in mythological history — a creature present in the Garden of Eden; a representative of Kundalini, coiled at the base of the spine in Hindu cosmology; the primal, earth-based, serpent power joined with Eagle’s vision in the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl. This meeting — and this being — had a presence beyond the mundane and logical, and, fear notwithstanding, I was not about to walk away from it.
Love and fear, attraction and repulsion — not an uncommon dilemma, although the stakes here seemed higher than in more ordinary circumstances. How could I reach out when I wanted to run away, relax with a knot in my belly, or speak when the cat had my tongue? Intent and immobile, Crotulus watched me. The ball was in my court. It was my move, and I began by singing to him.
I tried to let my heart do the speaking as words rose up in a song. I sang about my fear and my desire to reach out. I sang of my longing to connect, to trust and move past separation and protectiveness. Slowly kneeling before him, I sang to the life force and the to earth we shared. I sang his praise, and a prayer to be more present, to remove the distance between us. Eventually, like a dam breaking, I felt my fear leave me. And in that moment Crotulus moved.
His head turned. His small black tongue slowly flicked out. His sinuous form shifted, and his breathing became noticeable. I continued to sing as waves of gratitude and a palpable sense of the sacred washed over me. As I released my fear Crotulus relaxed. He was listening.
For the next ten minutes I knelt and continued singing. I serenaded him, crooned my gratitude for our meeting, my respect for the life and wisdom he carried. I acknowledged him as friend, relative, and brother; I voiced my intent to do no harm. I sang until I had no more words and my heart told me the meeting was complete. At that very moment, Crotulus turned and slid away through the creosote.
Most people say they love Nature, but the nature they’re thinking of is made up of soaring hawks, majestic mountains, and ocean sunsets. How much does this love extend to spiders, poison ivy, relentless downpours, and rattlesnakes? Can we honestly say we love Nature if we exclude vast portions of what she is?
I think not. No one I know would be satisfied with a love so partial and conditional. Everyone wants more than that, and Nature deserves it as well.
Myths and fables can guide us here. When the princess finally allows the ugly frog to sleep in her bed, the repulsive creature transforms into a radiant prince. When Beauty recognizes and loves the beautiful heart within the Beast, he is changed and redeemed, her act simultaneously effecting and marking her passage from child to woman. Learning to love and accept nature’s more “unsavory” elements — like Crotulus — transforms them in our eyes, and opening those windows of perception can transform us in the process.
Nature responds to the way we treat it. The rattlesnake I sung to — in its way — clearly “heard” me. It responded. I have experienced and witnessed many remarkable experiences of communion with nature that resulted from extending an open heart. Joseph Campbell used the expression “Masks of God,” to express that all beings — newborn child and tarantula — are aspects of the great Mystery, each with its unique face. It is part of our growth and calling, part of a maturation process, to recognize the divine within any particular mask it wears. Turning way from any part of “the Creation” drives a wedge between us and the Creator.
There’s a common saying, “We don’t see the world the way it is; we see the world the way we are.” Nature is holding a mirror before us. To ignore the natural world, or be repulsed by parts of it, says a lot about our own nature. Recognizing beauty in the beast nurtures beauty in our own hearts; appreciation and gratitude transforms our spirit. If humans have evolved from the living earth, we are “meeting our maker” as we gaze into Nature’s mirror. May we know, and find ourselves, and see there the face of love.
Sparrow Hart — October 2017