A Tale of Two Snakes

Upon entering the warmest room in our house, we are greeted with the subtle smell of earth. In this room is a 36″X18″X12″ bioactive habitat with two small garter snakes (a blue-sided garter snake and valley garter snake). Most people in the USA have seen a garter snake of some sort as they are widely distributed throughout the country, from the Great Lakes through Texas and coast to coast. They are a highly variable genus of snakes, some with vibrant colors (reds, blues, oranges), some with checkered patterns, often having length-wise stripes.

One of my research interests is the ways that spatial and temporal context modify the kinds of relationships and interactions that people have with snakes. Snakes strike fear in many peoples’ hearts and simply seeing them can cause visceral reactions ranging from screams to goose-flesh to nausea. I am interested in exploring the historical and cultural forms that create this kind of reaction in other places but here I want to think about perception.

Back to the snakes that live in our home. Entering the room results in two very different reactions. Blue (the blue-striped garter snake) greets us with curiosity, crawling to the front of the habitat with tongue flicking and head lifted. Valley (the valley garter snake) poking its head out of its current hiding spot, angled away as if prepared to dart off.

NOTE: I know that their names are not creative but trust me when I say that they do not care.

These are two snakes of similar ages, they are the same species: Thamnophis sirtalis (different subspecies), live in the same enclosure (garter snakes are often gregarious), eat the same foods at the same time, are handled at the same time. However, they have developed two different personalities. Each perceives and responds in different ways. Valley sits still, warily looking over its back while Blue, using his tongue greets us with what we interpret as zeal.

The two experiences and forms of expression by each snake is empirically different. Valley is using his eyes, sense of touch, and ears (snakes can hear but their ear openings are covered by scales so it is muffled). But Blue is also sensing with his tongue: a multifaceted tool that he uses both for smell and touch. Garter snakes are excellent visual predators and take in the world through vision but snakes also have a special sense of smell. Using their tongues, they collect scent molecules from the air, depositing them into a special organ in the roof of the mouths called a Jacobson’s organ (or vomeronasal organ). This organ is contacted to the brain by a special nerve where the sensory information is interpreted. Snakes can detect the directionality of the odor using the forking at its end and arching the tongue in various directions.

This behavior builds a blueprint of the world that is substantially different from the ways that we perceive, interpret, and construct the world (assuming there are no snakes reading this). This alterity results in a difficulty bridging the gaps between snake-ness and human-ness. The worlds that we perceive are very different worlds. It is not simply that snakes have an extra-sensory ability that we lack, they are positioned in the world differently. Snakes move along the ground on their bellies and so their perspective is substantially different than us: bipedal and vertically oriented. Given that we sense the world in such different ways, it is safe to say that we make sense of the world differently. However, these worlds are bound together through the shared experiences that we have.

I want to shift this story from our home to the greenways of San Antonio were we spend a lot of our time. We have encountered many snakes out on the greenways: coral snakes, rough green snakes, rat snakes, coachwhips, blind snakes, ribbons snakes (also Thamnophis) and yes, garter snakes. We move through the greenways on a paved trail and it represents a space of exercise, nature, socialization (in less pandemic-y times), exploration, and possibility.

But what might this space be to a snake: a place to bask (snakes are ectothermic and so rely on ambient temperatures to regulate body heat), a barrier to be crossed while moving from one wooded area to another or a body of water, dangerous (there are often quick moving bikes on the trail and we have seen dead snakes from time to time; they are also at risk of predation by birds), a space for feeding (there are often lizards either on the trail or its margins).

Regardless of what the greenways mean to the snakes, it places humans and snakes in direct contact with one another. As such, for both, it represents a realm of potentialities. Bridging the gap left by alterity is a grand task that can produce positive interactions that leave both humans and snakes better on the other side of the interaction.

Walking the greenways with a snake hook sparks conversations. People are excited to tell me about their experiences with snakes: harrowing or positive. One common theme that is evident from those conversations is the greenway creates an opportunity for new possibilities. People that report being terrified of snakes, even killing them in their yards, also express great excitement when seeing them out on their walks along the greenway.

There are so many lenses through which this could be analyzed: Douglas’ notion of ‘dirt’ as matter out of place, affect theory, phenomenology. That’s not going to happen today but I believe that the superficially contradictory nature of human-snakes relations can be reconciled. Once we better understand that, maybe we can reconcile the relationship and create new possibilities of coexistence and multispecies kinship.

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