“As I take my next step, fang sheaths retract, a jaw unhinges, and fangs thrust forward. Thick muscles in the shape of a S contract, straightening the body, driving home a surprise sucker punch driven by defensive reflex. The twin spears pierce the skin of my foot. Venom sacs compress, injecting a large dose of poison deep into the side of my foot.
I cannot scream or move. I am suspended, held by bonds I cannot see, growing, growing, bloating to obese flapping sheets of death. I am sliced up the middle, divided, exposed, and vulnerable. That can't be me I see in a mirror, nor is it death standing there beside me. I want to laugh, to deflect the embarrassing absurdity, but can only stare and endure.
A large rattlesnake retreats into the night, leaving me flayed, swollen, suspended in a web woven of silence.”
The author of the paragraphs above is Erec Toso, a professor of English at the University of Arizona, here in Tucson. Sometime within the past few years, he was badly bitten by a large Mojave rattlesnake as he and his sons returned to their home after swimming at the community pool. Zero at the Bone is Toso's very personal narrative about the experience. Subtitled Rewriting Life after a Snakebite, it's an at times unsettling look at an uncommon occurrence – the snakebite itself – and the transformation of the author's life as he recovered from it. It is also a plea for the reader to understand a creature that inspires fear in so many of us, a plea to preserve the diversity of desert life (any life), and not simply to destroy what we do not comprehend.
“The life and perceptive capacity of the rattlesnake is about as different from ours as a life can be. They have an organ, called Jacobson's organ, that interprets microscopic particles picked up by the tongue; it is thousands of times more sensitive than the human tongue. A rattlesnake is acutely sensitive to sound, scent, heat, and image. In the sensory deprivation that is the desert, they find rich trails of stimuli, and have evolved to read the slightest signals. They are literate to the signs we can't even detect.
By contrast, we are hugely untutored in the ways of reading the desert. We miss most of what is there. We see emptiness, hear silence, smell only the most pungent of scents. Snakes live by being able to detect the footfall of a mouse and the molecular scent trails of prey and other snakes in the breeding season. And by avoiding the clumsiness of people.
They are, in other words, much more sensitive than we, infinitely more tuned in to their surroundings. Yet we see them as cold and unfeeling. We also see them as vicious, hostile, always on the make. We think they are like us.”
It is clear that Toso did a great deal of research about rattlesnakes following the near-death experience in his backyard. It is also clear that he harbors no ill-will toward the one snake that bit him, nor any other with which he might cross paths; indeed, he writes eloquently about the folly of destroying such agile creatures:
“Right now we just remove them or kill them.
Both lead to removing snakes from their habitat, and that creates an opening in the ecosystem. An opening in the ecosystem leads to imbalance. If we remove a predator, prey population will increase.
We are getting rid of snakes and breeding rats. We are the ones who will determine what creatures remain and flourish on the planet, and if we keep going it will be cockroaches and rats, the camp followers of humanity.”
Toso's writing inspires even as it unsettles, as he weaves a tale of emotional transformation along with physical recovery, and spiritual awakening to the surrounding land-and-animal-scape. Zero at the Bone is not just one man's story, but a defense of all that is wild and free. Be sure to read all about it.
Copyright © 2007, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.