Al Wilson isn’t as well remembered as some of music’s other Wilsons, but his 1968 R&B hit “The Snake” seems the ideal soundtrack for these pollen-laden weeks. In “The Snake,” a benevolent woman spots a half-frozen, limbless and scaled creature along a lakeside path. “Take me in, tender woman,” he entreats. She brings him home and revives him with milk and honey. But when she draws him close, he gives her a deadly bite. “‘I saved you,’ cried that woman, ‘and you bit me, even. Why?’” The reptile responds with a grin: “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
I’ve always taken it for granted that human beings are born with an innate fear of snakes. Even without knowing of the serpentine reputation for trickery and dangerwhether of the Old Testament or the Al Wilson varietywe, innately it seems, recoil from the sight of them. The scientific jury is still out on this issue, but there is certainty on one fact: To the human brain, snakes are more important than other members of the animal kingdom. According to a 2008 study, humans have a tendency for the rapid detection of snakes. We might overlook a hedgehog, perhaps even one riding a unicycle, but we will notice a snake, even when it’s just blending in with the landscape.
This phenomenon became clear to me on a recent spring morning. A long black snake with a white underbelly and faint white bands around its midsection sprawledironically, I thoughtacross the black letters declaring WELCOME on our front porch mat. I knew it was snake season, but somehow that knowledge did not ameliorate the experience of encountering spring’s first serpent. I re-shut the storm door and grabbed my video camera. Once he’d been reduced to a digital image and could be reviewed for later study, I would get him off my porch. I couldn’t very well just step over him and leave him there. What if he decided he really liked the feeling of that rough thatchy welcome mat and wanted to just hang out? And what if he was a she?
I gave the door a little kick to get the serpent’s attention, and it stirred. Slowly, begrudgingly, it shimmied forward a bit, showing me its full length. The snake was nearly three feet longI am not exaggerating; the video confirms this. I gave another kick, and it paused. After the briefest don’t-rush-me caesura, the black monster moved forward again, tongue flicking, and soon had gently angled its tubular bulk down the front porch steps. My rational brain hadn’t quite kicked in yetI eyed the shovel leaning against the house. But then I remembered what I’d been told by the N.C. natives: The black ones are the good ones, because they feed on rats and copperheads. They are our friends, even, and you don’t bisect your friends with a shovel.
I kept my eyes to the ground as I followed the snake’s measured progress along the house’s front perimeter. When it reached the corner, I could almost hear it mutter something like “This is where I came in” before disappearing, in increments of one-third, down a hole I never knew was there. I wonder if my new friend needs a welcome mat, too.