Snakes on the Plains

This is the season of the reptiles. Walking to work this morning, I met a lizard, grey with yellow stripes. He sat in the soft orange dust of the path, amidst footprints including my own bootprints from yesterday and the day before. I was jumping from one patch of shade to another -- there is a forest of wispy desert oaks around the path and I have made it my business to know all the trees and where their shade goes at each time of day. The lizard however sat in the sun, as alert and cryptic as a little dinosaur. When he saw me, he ran delicately up the filigree branchlet of a tree by the path, still looking at me with his flat lizard eye.

This is also the season in which I bless the snakes. The blessing, which I have made mentally a thousand times already, goes something like this, “Beautiful snakes. I know this is your place. Thank you for hearing the thump of my boots and retreating so that I don’t see you. I don’t mean to frighten you. I will not harm you. My only desire is to travel through your country, enjoy it and not disturb you.”

There are plenty of snakes in Central Australia, many of them deadly poisonous. A couple are big, aggressive snakes. The biggest, deadliest snakes are most content when the temperature is between 25 and 35 degrees, I’m told. When it gets hotter the King Brown seeks a cooler place under the doorstep or in the laundry. The heat makes them uncomfortable and cranky.

Most snake-bites are on the feet or ankles so I wear my elastic-sided leather boots when walking in the desert, even in summer. These boots have a great tradition in the Australian bush and are very easy and comfortable to wear. According to Frank Hardy, the Aboriginal stockmen in the North called them laughing-side boots. They’re heavy enough to make a stomp and thick enough to protect your feet. They’re cool and dark inside, so I do tip them upside down before putting them on every morning, in case a centipede or scorpion has climbed in.

shingle back Lizard trying to look fierce, Central Australia (c) Claudia Jocher 2015

shingle back Lizard trying to look fierce, Central Australia (c) Claudia Jocher 2015

I’ve heard of a couple of sad cases where children have been bitten by snakes that came into houses in the outback. Houses built without decent materials and skilled labour can develop dangerous gaps. The wild desert storms might shift  around the walls and floor, or make holes under doors. I had a tiny, very poisonous baby snake in my desert house a few years ago. I took it as a sign to leave.

Snakes play an important role in the Tjukurpa of the Anangu people who live in this region. All over Australia, in Aboriginal understanding, a special snake created the landforms, rivers and lakes, mountains and reef. The entire landscape of earth was made from her body. She communicates now through the rainbow, her giant colourful body having been consumed in the world’s creation.

There is another Aboriginal story in this region about the python woman and her relation, who is a poisonous snake man. The man neglects the woman’s child and she clubs him to death in retribution. You can see the woman, in giant dynamic form, looming out of the creases of a towering rust-coloured cliff near here. You can also see the poisonous snake man dying on the rock wall across the stony gully. Thousands of years ago, the people of this region were thinking and teaching about the dangers of child neglect and abuse.

I thought of all these snakes – the eternal ones and the everyday ones – as I hurried down the dust path to the clinic where I work. We have had a couple of snake bites here this summer. As the resident doctor, I am grateful that both patients are okay. A little snake blessing goes a long way.