overcoming primal fear

Few animals arouse primal fear like snakes and yet as citified as we are we seldom see ’em. Other than a green snake scooting through the lawn few people encounter snakes, and even fewer cross paths with industrial-strength venomous snakes. The kind that can send you to the next world.

Cold weather’s a good time to talk about snakes. They’re holed up for winter, experiencing brumation, dormancy akin to hibernation. You can read my sidewinder revelations now and venture outside with no trepidation. Knowing that I face snake encounters for sure, my questions come to you from a survival manual: Would you put yourself in the midst of true snake country where professional help is out of the question?

Snake Chaps & A Bite Kit
Snake Chaps & A Bite Kit

Would you take a scalpel and cut an X over a bite and use a suction cup to siphon some venom out? Could you avoid panic and steadily make your way to your car or truck without running and speeding up the flow of blood and lymph? Think about that as we soldier on.

Southerners who hunt and fish and otherwise explore serious woods and waters respect snakes because they figure that someday their time to mix it up with a copperhead or rattler will come. There! By that rotting log, fangs!

I’ve spent a lot of time in snake country: swamps, savannas, and upland woods where highland moccasins lie in wait. I’ve always wondered what I’ll do when a big snake bites me. It seems guaranteed, but so far it hasn’t happened, and in a strange way I’m disappointed. What a test of my manhood that would be.

“Rattler got me last week.”

“Good God. You okay?”

“Dry bite. Got lucky.”

I know two fellows back home that got bit. One was messing with a moccasin in his back yard. The other stuck his hand beneath a bale of hay, testing for moisture. A copperhead struck him on the thumb. Both survived.

Snakes. I know people who hate ’em, love ’em, avoid ’em, collect ’em, and study ’em. Most people don’t like snakes, largely because of myths and that primal fear thing. Ever since Adam, Eve, that infamous Apple, and a treacherous serpent, snakes have gotten a bum rap. Many people believe the only good snake is a dead snake. My dad sure did and a hoe was always handy.

As sure as daffodils bloom, snakes’ day in the sun is coming.

Whatever camp you fall into, warmer weather breaks snakes’ dormancy and out from hiding they come. Ten days ago the temperature plunged to 13 degrees Fahrenheit. Today it’s 57 degrees. As sure as daffodils bloom, snakes’ day in the sun is coming. They’ll soon slither, slink, and slide their way through woods and waters and it’s just a matter of time until I cross paths with one. Thanks to a book project, I’ll spend much of 2014 slogging through the swamps, savannas, and sand rims of Carolina bays — prime snake country. I am dead certain I’ll see some big ones and I have a premonition fangs will sink into my leg this summer. I really do and in a strange way I think it will be a good experience. Call me crazy.

A Harmless Water Snake Catching Sun On An Autumn Day
A Harmless Water Snake Catching Sun On An Autumn Day

I’ve had a few snake encounters … back in the days when I was making natural history films I’d go to Woods Bay State Park, a swampy place between Sumter and Florence. I’d go alone and set up my camera and film whatever moved … ospreys, alligators, anhingas, wood ducks, and other waterfowl of all kinds.

One day, alone as always, because two people invariably talk and scare off wild animals, I was panning across water lilies when a noise to my left distracted me. About 12 feet away a cottonmouth as thick as my arm slithered across the millpond dam. Before I could get my camera turned around it was gone, and soon so was I.

Another film experience brought a gastronomic snake encounter. I was jouncing along a dusty road in a jeep in Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge near McClellanville at a place called Bull Island. The wildlife department had airlifted a jeep there, and a biologist and I were heading to an alligator den when he slammed on the brakes. Up ahead a thick rattlesnake slithered through the dust. Mike was the biologist’s name; out he jumped grabbing a stick sporting a noose and rope.

“What are you doing?”

“Gonna eat it,” he said, lassoing the rattler, which began coiling, rattling, and fighting as best it could before he tightened the noose around its head. Into a cage in the back of the jeep it went to be killed, skinned, and grilled (Southern Fried Rattlesnake … Skin rattlesnake. Clean and wash meat. Cut in four-inch lengths. Beat egg and milk. Mix salt, pepper, garlic salt, Accent, and flour. Preheat deep fat fryer with cooking oil. Dip snake into egg mixture and then in flour mixture and place it in hot oil. Cook until golden brown. Try it!).

In October 2011, I drove to the southwest corner of Georgia to a town called Colquitt. A woman and I went to see a play that I had written for Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk-Life Play. Driving back, the rhythm of South Georgia travel asserted itself … cotton fields, pecan orchards … cotton fields, pecan orchards, and on and on this farmland cadence went. Then ahead in a long straight highway flanked by cotton lay a large oak limb. “Must have fallen off a truck,” I thought. As I drove closer the limb began a slow, serpentine motion. It was a monstrous eastern diamondback, the rattler South Georgia is famous for. We had to take the opposite lane to avoid it. For weeks that snake gave her nightmares.

On another occasion I went to a big weekend event for sportsmen at the state fairgrounds here in Cola Town. One of the big exhibits was an indoor containment area filled with 300 rattlers. The moment I stepped into the building, a sickly sweet fragrance like almond liqueur hit me and then I heard this whirring sound: 300 rattlers expressing their displeasure at being held captive. A man with snake boots walked among them as if he were strolling through a patch of daffodils.

A minor but jolting encounter … Last summer I was watering St. Augustine sod with a bright green hose. Suddenly the hose began to coil around my wrist. It took my eyes a second to realize what was happening. A bright green grass snake had crawled up the hose and was wrapping itself around my right wrist … For a second I thought the hose had come alive. When the snake’s head crossed my thumb I panicked. Slinging the hose away and with it the snake, I did something resembling the Mexican hat dance. I looked around, relieved that no neighbors had seen the cowardly dance a harmless snake had orchestrated. How can anyone be afraid of an emerald grass snake? Easy. Primal fear my man.

Forget the grass snake. This world has snakes whose names telegraph bad news at once. Just hearing their name induces paralysis … Gaboon Viper, Black Mamba, King Cobra, Bushmaster, Death Adder … It’s said in South Africa that when a Black Mamba bites you, you just need to find a shade tree. Sit down and close your eyes. You’re outbound for good. When you hear advice like that you feel a shiver of primal fear. Of course fear can make for a good laugh too.

I have a reptilian fantasy that would land me in jail. Every time I go to Riverbank Zoo’s Aquarium Reptile Complex I wish I had a realistic rubber rattlesnake. When a crowd presses against the plate glass where the diamondbacks lie I want to hurl that snake into their midst. Sheer bedlam. Can’t you just see the folks screaming and scattering. Alas it must and will remain a fantasy.

I have a friend, Ben, who long ago worked with a fellow, Jackson, whose primal fear bordered on phobia. They worked in an old warehouse with loose planking and one day Ben spotted a hole in the floor. Realizing he had a great opportunity for a practical joke he set the stage.

“Hmmm, looks like we have a snake in here.”

“A snake!”

“Yep, Jackson, probably just a black snake … surely it’s not a rattler,” said Ben.

Jackson had a habit that would do him in. Every day when he came to work he placed his hat up on a shelf. He was reliable as the rising sun. Into work he came and onto the shelf by the front door went his hat.

Ben had a fake rattler, a realistic fake (He says they don’t make ’em anymore cause of lawsuits caused by pranksters). In fact he said if it were on the ground you’d think it was real. Ben also had some monofilament fishing line. And a penchant for scaring folks good. Jackson came in and put his hat on the shelf. As the workday progressed Ben slipped over to Jackson’s hat and tied that rubber rattler to it with monofilament.

He greased the path by asking Jackson to help him move a heavy box of books in the back of the warehouse. Wouldn’t you know it, behind the box was a snakeskin.

“Damn, we have got us a snake problem for sure,” said Ben.

Jackson’s eyes widened.

“Well, all we can do is watch our step,” said Ben.

Jackson said not a word, but he moved around little the rest of the morning, avoiding the back area as much as he could.

Lunchtime arrived.

“Jackson,” said Ben, “how ’bout you and me grab some hotdogs.”

“All right, sounds good.”

A few fellows, cued in, wandered up to see the little comedy that was about to unfold. Ben knew that Jackson would reach for his hat as they left for lunch. That he did. And when he did pandemonium erupted. As Jackson donned his hat the rattler flew off the shelf wrapping around his neck and face. Jackson screamed some choice expletives and flinging his arms about hurled his hat high into the air. The snake came untied and flew over behind some boxes. The hat went in the opposite direction. Jackson hit the door running and cleared the steps in a single bound.

Sidesplitting laughter erupted but it stopped on a dime when Jackson rushed back in brandishing a .38 revolver.

“Where’s that damn snake? I’ll kill the sonofabitch.”

Jackson went all through the warehouse looking for the snake.

Ben counseled his coworkers. “If any of you bastards tell Jackson I did that I’ll kill you.” He then grabbed the snake and hid it in his truck. Jackson never knew the snake was fake. He soon found another job.

Yes, other Jacksons are out there and primal fear season will soon be upon us. I look forward to encounters. This spring and summer I’ll see the best snakes Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina can grow. In the Tarheel State for sure snakes will be on my mind. A snake has never bitten me, yet, but I read about a fellow up there who may have set a record for snakebites: the Last Great Snake Man, Tim McLaurin. I’ll be up near Tim’s old stomping grounds come sunny, warm weather.

Tim grew up on a family farm near Fayetteville, North Carolina. An ex-Marine, he once ran a traveling snake show. He also became an assistant professor at North Carolina State University based on his love of books. The author of a memoir, Keeper of the Moon, he was a bona fide man of letters.

Tim died July 11, 2002, of esophageal cancer, a snake of another kind. He was 48 and he was not afraid of cancer or snakes. He asked a friend, a fellow who shoed horses, to build his coffin. His friend made a pine box with steel rims inlaid vertically and horizontally. Folks said it looked like a whiskey barrel.

Yes, Tim McLaurin is gone but not forgotten, this daring snake handler, (not the ultra-religious South Georgia type where handling a venomous snake is the ultimate test of faith). “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them …” Mark 16:18.

The Last Great Snake Man, cover of Books Of Passage
The Last Great Snake Man, cover of Books Of Passage

Though he’s gone, Tim speaks to us from his whiskey-barrel coffin about his affinity for pit vipers.

“My sanity was questioned. But all I knew was that with a rattler or a copperhead in my hand, a path between people opened before me like the Red Sea rolling back.”

The great snake man was eight years old when he caught his first snake. He was walking home from the school bus stop when he saw a slender snake the color of wheat. “I stopped and stared. A voice as old as religion spoke to me. ‘Run, boy. Get your daddy. Get the hoe. Chop that thing into as may pieces as you can. Snakes can hypnotize you. They can sting you with their tongues. They are the incarnate of evil.’ ”

Tim did just the opposite. He grabbed the snake and put it in a mason jar. Two fine things happened. The next time the bookmobile came his way he checked out a book on snakes. That act began a lifelong love for reading. As he read, another great thing happened. He learned that not everything you are taught is true. He learned that snakes were incredible.

“Whenever I held a snake in my hand, I was defeating ignorance,” said a wiser Tim, having learned some hard lessons. Tim got bitten so many times he developed blood cancer as a result of all the anti-venoms he had to take. One day a black snake bit him and died. Tim, you see, had had so much chemotherapy in his blood it killed the snake. They say Tim McLaurin went on record as the one time a snake bit a man and died. Tim, no doubt, felt sadness because he loved snakes.

I hope we all learn from the last great snake man. The next time you see a snake, don’t get the hoe and chop it up. Just let it be. We all have to survive in this world and live off it best we can. Why make it hard on one another just because somebody taught you the only good snake is a dead snake. I say live and let live.

Photos by the author

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at www.tompoland.net. Email him at [email protected].