Two days ago, after being privileged with the opportunity of speaking to group of students about my relationship with animals, and particularly snakes, a student asked, “Why these snakes in particular?” The question was referring to the Amazonian puffing snakes (Spilotes sulphureus), which have long been a fascination and love of mine, and a pair of which I currently keep and nurture in my daily life at home. I answered as best I could at the time, noting their beauty, variability, and intelligence as irresistible traits, but the question has lingered in the days since, prompting my attention.
All my life I have been blessed with the presence of animals when I needed it most. It is perhaps the most persistent and unfailing pattern of salvation in my life - the attention, affection, and wisdom of animals. Without them, I feel it is no exaggeration to suggest I would not be here, and for many periods of my life, I dedicated more of each day to close proximity with wild animals, than I did to sharing space with my fellow humans. More and more I see that the best parts of my identity, the most dignified parts, were formed in relationship to animals and the more-than-human world. I have learned to pay special attention to the ones who show up most, whose presences appear persistently and unexpectedly. I have learned to ask, why you? What are you asking me? What are you teaching me?
In all respects, the puffing snakes have been one such relationship in my life, appearing in ways that are mysterious to me, and in ways to which I surrender my desire for nuanced understanding, for something older and deeper and more faithful. So when I reflect upon the question that student asked me, the answer that comes now, away from the anxiety of public speaking - is presence. The puffing snakes are by all accounts sensitive, alert, and responsive beings - not unique traits among snakes, but especially pronounced in Spilotes, more-so than in any other species I have shared space with. Should I come to them carelessly, they will inflate their throats, rattle their tails, and let me know, in ways abundantly clear, that I have an impact and that I must be gentle - this is a gift. I know that when relating to the puffing snakes in my care, they will demand the best of my presence and attention. Anything less will not suffice.
It occurs to me that in a Western worldview and lifeway, it is unmitigated presence that feels among the most elusive of all things. The urgent pace a capitalist economy instills upon anyone of the working class and the ever-present overstimulation and distraction wrought by our technological gadgetry serve to remove us from the here-and-now in a thousand subtle and overt ways. As a result of our diminishedness, we are capable of moving through the world without regard or attention for our impact upon it - in this way, the consequences of our failure to inhabit our lives with attention and presence are unmaking the world as we know it. For this reason, I am learning to give thanks to anything which asks for my presence, to give thanks to anything that reflects to me my potential to impact and be impacted - without such feedback, what would my life be?
And when I approach the Spilotes slowly, with reverence, when I offer my hand and wait patiently, sometimes they come to me, tracing the contours of my skin with the insistent flicks of their tongues, all curiosity and tenderness. This too is a gift.