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Sun Gatto-Snake & My Toes_Oct18




The HAYS HUMM - October 2018 - Online Edition

Tom Jones & Betsy Cross

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The snake and my toes

More flotsam and jetsam from a Naturalist’s Mind


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So I was sitting outside by the pond yesterday morning when I saw a frog literally hopping for his life across the patio, being chased by one of the resident ribbon snakes. He managed to escape into the water and under the lily pads, but the snake stayed around for a while. I got to watch him navigate his world for a couple of hours.

First, he tried to stalk what he thought was the frog, but it turned out to be just a blob of muck.

Next, he crawled up one of the plants and dangled himself over the water in a clear spot. I guess he figured the frog might swim by and he could make a quick ambush. Instead the koi wandered past, and after thinking maybe he could nab one of them - I could actually see him tighten up for a strike - he decided, nah, they were too big.

Then he decided to come check me out. He hadn’t been using his tongue prior to that, but I guess he had to smell me before deciding I also was TOO big. It took a bit of nerve for me to leave my feet by the rocks when he went under them to come out of the water. Why was that? I knew he was there. And I knew he wasn’t going to bother me. I mean, it was just a ribbon snake.

But snakes can do that to you, even to us Master Naturalists. What causes that innate instinctive reaction to potential threats? How can we still be hardwired to react after all these generations living away from the natural world? Can we overcome these fears when there is no longer a rational reason for them? Watch “The Babadook” to see if you still get scared by the boogeyman.

I once knew a girl who was so afraid of spiders that she ran away screaming when she saw one. I pointed out the potential to fall off a cliff, or get hit by the proverbial bus. Or that all the noise she was making might bring a real predator (lion?) around. She didn’t think I was funny.

I trained horses for over 20 years. Talk about a highly ingrained flight response to danger! Some of them will think a hose, or a piece of rope, or any long, thin, unnatural looking thing on the ground just might be a snake. You better hang on when that flight response kicks into high gear.

Even my koi understand innate dangers. They won’t come up to feed when the shadows are just right. They must think I look like a GREAT BIG heron standing over the pond. Of course, for them, that is a real ongoing threat. Many a koi in a backyard have been eaten by a heron. Just not a 5’6” one.

I guess innate fear must be part of our DNA. And even when created by unnatural circumstances, it stays with us. Like the caterpillars trained to avoid a certain odor retain that aversion even after metamorphosis. Link:

But horses can be trained to confront their fears. Think of the movie “War Horse”. Read “Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II” to learn about elephants trained to do almost impossible feats in spite of their understanding of danger. But maybe just confronting fear isn’t enough. Imagine if ALL the soldiers ran away at the first battle. Or maybe it is keeping your toes by the rocks, even when you don’t know exactly where that snake will come out.

Of course, my ability to do that was really a result of knowing what kind of snake I was looking at, what that snake’s place in the natural world was, and how it intersected with mine. It was all that knowledge that allowed me to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. In other words, it was because I am a Master Naturalist!!! And the snake, in spite of his missing out this time, is a darn good hunter. I hardly ever have any frogs in the pond anymore.

Courage is a special kind of knowledge; the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.
— David Ben-Gurion
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