Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Serpents of Paradise: A Talk given at 1999 Parents' Weekend, Thacher School

When I first came to Thacher as a freshman, confused, lonely, and half afraid of my own shadow, sadly ignorant of Castillian Spanish, the subjunctive mood of Latin verbs, and nearly everything in my bright blue math book, I thought my only strength might be in English composition.
            I held out for that hope until my first essay was returned to me. It had the curious grade of one hundred and twenty-four written in red ink above the title on the first page. Then I noticed the small minus sign:  it was minus one hundred and twenty-four! I remember sitting numbly, staring with growing horror at my incomprehensible achievement. I had earned a B in English at my previous school. Something was dreadfully wrong. This place was different, different from any place I had ever been.
            I began to hear stories around the dorms about the teachers, and these teachers were different, unlike any people I had ever met. My English teacher was known for grabbing large rattlesnakes by the tale, whirling them in a circle above his head, and then snapping them like a bullwhip. Now that certainly engendered great respect in a timid young scholar:  I quickly got my essay scores out of the negative numbers.
            What indisputably placed yet another one of the teachers in a permanent seat among the Olympians, at least in my freshman mind, was the account of when he woke up during the night on a camping trip and realized that there was a rattlesnake in his sleeping bag. Amazingly, he simply stayed in his sleeping bag all night long until the snake finally left of its own accord.
            It is only natural that rattlesnake stories like these should be a part of Thacher and that these stories, the tales of the tribe,  should give shape to our understanding of this school. Thacher is, after all, located precisely on that narrow frontier between civilized, cultivated land, covered with rows of productive orange trees, and the vast sea of primordial wilderness, the chaparral covered mountains, which very likely look much as they did when the first humans arrived here some 20,000 years ago.  These rugged mountains have always been good rattlesnake country, some of the best anywhere.
            Of course, I have my own rattlesnake story, what Thacher graduate doesn't? On a hot spring day in my Junior year, Ted Rhodes and I decided to brush out a lost trail only a few hundred feet from this outdoor chapel.
            After years of neglect, the trail had become completely choked with brush and vines. We hacked away with axes at the dense, dry chaparral for several hours, and then, as I raised the ax up directly above my head to chop more brush, my eye noticed an odd shape draped over the ax handle. I remember looking straight up above my head at a very surprised fat, black rattlesnake looking straight back down at me. Instead of freezing, and letting the snake drop on my head, I luckily threw the whole mess, the snake and the ax, as far behind me as I could.  This was my first close encounter with a rattlesnake, and in a frenzy I grabbed the ax and whacked its head off as it tried to escape into a poison oak patch.
            I remember carrying the decapitated snake all the way back to the barns. I showed it to Jesse Kahle, saying proudly, "Look, I killed a rattler." But Jesse walked on and barely took notice, replying only with an enigmatic, " Well, it sure looks like you did." Clearly, he was not very impressed. I cut off the rattles and pinned them to the wall of my room. They were disappointingly short.
            The ancient Chumash, Ojai's Native Americans, were evidently respectful of the rattlesnake, seeing it as another creature with which to live in this benign and naturally inhabitable place. I have read that the gentle Chumash included Rattlesnake as an important and positive fellow creature in their wonderful stories, such as their version of the Prometheus Myth, in which Coyote, Grizzly Bear, Frog, Rattlesnake and other animals conspired together to steal fire from the mysterious, selfish god that lived inside Mount Shasta. The animals carried a burning stick back to the Chumash people in a relay race and gave them the gift of fire, for which the Chumash were forever grateful.
            Claude Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, speculates that man's evolution from a state of nature into a civilized state was caused by the mysterious emergence of human consciousness, our innate and utterly unique capacity to engage in complex self-reflective thought,  to know and to speculate on who we are and why we are here, to think deeply about thinking. He sees consciousness itself as the cause of our fall from the innocence of the natural world, a place from which we are now forever alienated, a warm, lost Eden to which we long to return but never will.
            We are permanent exiles from that green and golden land. All visits are doomed to be temporary, and remain a form of intertainment, now referred to as "ecotourism".  We must all return to our comfortable and sprawling civilization of planned and gated communities, discount shopping malls, and Blockbuster Videos.
            The poet Emily Dickinson saw nature with a very sharp eye. She had studied science at Mount Holyoak College and knew the latest theories of Darwin.  She sees nature as having a thin, fragile layer of beauty that barely conceals its violence and power. One of my favorite Dickenson poems is about an encounter with a snake:

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides--
You may have met Him--did you not
His notice sudden is--

The Grass divides as with a Comb--
A spotted shaft is seen--
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on--
Several of Nature's People
I know, and they know me--
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality--

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone--

            It's the line "Zero at the Bone" that gets me every time.  Living on my family's ranch, I encounter a rattlesnake every few years or so, and whenever I first see one, I always get that "tighter breathing", that strange chill that runs upwards through my whole body. You see, the reason I am speaking to you today of rattlesnakes is because I have just recently encountered one, one of the biggest ones I have ever seen.
            I was riding a horse in the dry autumn hills, up a dusty road between a brush-filled barranca and a rocky cliff. I rode up to within fifteen feet of it. The rattlesnake looked surreal in the bright noonday light. It was four to five feet long, very dark colored, with a glimmering greenish tint that seemed to glow from within, as jade does in sunlight. It lay unmoving, stretched out a full length, the distinctive wedge-shaped head flat on the ground, tongue testing the still air.
            I got off my horse, not knowing how she might react, and walked towards the snake. It was about eight feet away: it looked scrubbed and clean, like an ancient icon of polished stone. I suddenly wondered how it could crawl on its belly through these dry, dusty hills and stay so incredibly polished, so bright and, yes, even, at this moment, beautiful. We stayed there, together on the road, for some time. 
            Then something, something like an alarm clock going off when I least expect it , made me pick up a rock and throw it  at the snake. I missed, and, in a blink, the huge snake had completely reversed itself and started moving slowly off the road, buzzing its large rattle at half throttle, as if to say, "Ok, Ok, you win. Just let me get out of the way."
            But by then I wanted to kill it, just as I had killed, or tried to kill every other rattlesnake I had encountered over the last thirty three years, since my first encounter on the trail at Thacher.  The big snake reached the edge of the road, and I threw another larger rock, missing again. Pausing, the snake half coiled into an attack position, but, changing its mind, abruptly plunged off the road into the deep brushy draw. I ran to the edge of the road and heaved an even larger rock, one the size of a basketball, crashing it down through the brush.  Then there was silence. I am certain the snake escaped.
            My clumsy encounter with the big rattlesnake was  a turning point for me. The incident bothered me and became one of the "Moral Dilemmas" that we used to argue  about incessantly in Mr. Shagam's classes and after class at his dining room table. One of his "Moral Dilemma," topics was, for example, if there were a stop sign at a crossroads in the middle of the desert, and you could see that there were no cars coming for dozens of miles from any direction, should you stop or would it be alright to run the stop sign? We argued that one for days.
            So I thought and thought and argued with myself about the rattlesnake, and, for some reason of which I am still only half aware, I have decided not to kill any more rattlesnakes, unless, of course, they pose a real, immediate threat to someone by venturing too close to my house and vegetable garden or  horse pasture. A curious foal, bitten on the nose, will not survive.   
            Perhaps it was D.H. Lawrence's poem, "Snake,"  that most affected me. I have taught the poem for many years in my classes, but until now I had never really taken Lawrence's message very seriously. I had always thought that its meaning was just a bit too much on the surface, too obvious, too simple.
            We  can read and teach the same poems and novels over and over for years, but when our private lives suddenly intersect with them in some unexpectedly powerful and intimate way, it is like a Zen master suddenly whacking his student on the side of the head with a bamboo cane: Enlightenment can come in a flash. For the first time, the poem spoke directly to me.
            In the poem, Lawrence is in Sicily and has gone to get a pitcher of water at a public watertrough in a village. There he encounters a deadly poisonous snake drinking at the trough. Afraid, he nonetheless admires the snake for its strange beauty and dignity. But the minute it turns to leave, Lawrence gets an overwhelming urge to "take a stick and break him, to finish him off.” He goes on to say,

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
I think it did not hit him.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I have missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.

            The rattlesnake helped to bring the gift of fire to the ancient Chumash. We, too, should let the rattlesnake bring its Promethean fire into our lives, into our imaginations, into our souls, into our poetry.  The rattlesnake engenders in us both cautious admiration and the deepest fears, profound alienation and the most ancient connections.
            Like good poetry, the rattlesnake is at once both simple and impenetrable, and, like the greatest and most enduring poetry, the depth of its meaning may only become clear through time, sometimes, as in my own case, nearly a lifetime.  To our placid and easily distracted suburban minds, a chance encounter with a rattlesnake will always remain a dark and disturbing event, an experience that chills us to "Zero at the Bone."
            But the rattlesnake is also a complex emblem. It is part of that primary source material from which we have emerged and to which we can never return.  The writer William Kittredge has said,” We are reinventing our notion of what is most valuable to us, as individuals and as a species, redefining what we take to be sacred… If we have some luck, and if we stay as smart as we can, we may someday find ourselves living inside the solace of a coherent self.”
            Living in rattlesnake country may help us find that coherence at the deeper levels of the self. In the rattlesnake is the radical otherness of pure, raw nature, and if we come to know and respect this otherness, perhaps we can then learn, once again, to step with care, wisdom, and humility through the tall grass of the world.