Welcome to day 24 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
I was enchanted this morning by this little essay by Georgina Reid at Planthunter, an online Australian gardening magazine that I love, partly for its writing and interesting interviews of unusual people, and maybe mainly for its thematic framework each issue; themes have included Obsession, Lust, Abandon, Revolution, Isolation, Small, Mystery, Play, Ephemeral, Memory, Desire, Ritual, Decay.
Reid, who is the magazine’s editor, wrote this introductory piece about the topic of the latest issue, Ugly:
Ugliness is just a state of mind. Beauty is everywhere if we choose to see it, as is ugliness. It’s about ways of seeing rather than objective facts. It’s about the frame, not the painting within it. As Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, ‘The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.’
But it’s Reid’s reflection on a visiting python in her Australian garden (in or near Sydney) that caught my attention from an apocalyptic point of view. She begins by describing the morning before the snake appeared (for some reason misspelling D.H. Lawrence’s name):
… as I sat with my morning coffee, I opened a book randomly to a poem called Snake, by D.H Laurence [sic]. In the poem Laurence is visited on a hot day by a snake, drinking from the same water trough as him. He is mesmerised and tormented: ‘And voices in me said, If you were a man / You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.’ … A few hours after reading the poem, with snakes slithering around my mind, a diamond python arrived in our front garden.
Later, she returns to Lawrence’s poem:
Towards the end of the poem, Snake, D. H Laurence succumbs to his mind, his smallness, by throwing a ‘clumsy log’ at the snake. His last lines are full of regret:
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate;
By contrast, Reid welcomes the python in her garden, whom she nicknames SloMo and perceives to be “a queen, a gift … our queen of the underworld.” This snake, arriving with the start of spring in Australia, and who is anything but ugly …
… first arranges herself into a coil between two lomandras (a grassy Australian plant), then heads under the house when the rains begin (only her “tail” visible), and five days later makes herself at home in Reid’s “makeshift plant nursery underneath our kitchen window (a collection of plants/cuttings in pots sitting on a shelf made of milk crates and old timber boards), “curl[ing] up neatly on top of a small pot of Hoya longifolia,” where she remains for another week:
The Hoya longifolia, though, seemed to be her preferred plant. The Kalanchoe tomentosa, her second favourite. Every morning I’d stick my head out the door to see if she was still there. Sometimes her head would be dangling down between the timber boards, other times she’d be stretched out along the top of the pots. At the start, I was a bit worried about my plants, but soon I stopped bothering. I was transfixed.
I found myself sitting with the snake every day. I sat and I stared and stared. I soon realised that snakes don’t blink. They sleep with their eyes open. I learned lots of things by looking at her. She was/is magnificent. I got more confident being near her, and after a few days I was gently lifting her tail (?) off my most favourite Hoya obovata. Slowly, slowly I removed the plants from her path.
With the rains and the march of time, spring progresses, and Reid begins planting some of the 150 small pots of native plants “sitting stockpiled in a wallaby proof enclosure next to the vegetable garden,” and though her garden is “still ugly and rough and wild, … it’s green. … It was too cold for the snake then, but golly she was in my mind … primarily as a form of biological rodent/mini-marsupial control in my veggie garden.”
Like most reptiles, diamond pythons (Morelia spilota spilota) don’t really hibernate in winter so much as brumate, a partial hibernation, a sort of torpor, from which they emerge on warm sunny days to soak in solar heat and then return to their dens in rock crevices, logs, sometimes attics of homes; as one site put it, “If you hear a soft slithering in the ceiling, chances are a python or tree snake has taken up residence in your roof.” Low temps in Sydney rarely reach below 50F (10C), so freezing isn’t an issue for ectotherms there.
Around here, where our winter lows can reach -20F (-29C), we mostly have garter snakes, non-venomous smallish snakes that spend the winter with hundreds of their kind, in pre-dug animal burrows deep underground (called a hibernaculum; you can build one for your slithering friends!), below the level at which the ground freezes solid, around 3 feet deep here in New Hampshire. In any place where the ground freezes, snakes need to brumate “below the frost line to avoid freezing. If not, ice crystals could form in their body, resulting in death” (Iowa DNR) Some snakes look for deep crevices in rocky outcroppings, others use the burrows of animals that dig them, or abandoned wells and caves.
Not only is a snake “Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,” as Lawrence puts it — snakes are widely mythologically regarded “as guardians of the Underworld or messengers between the Upper and Lower worlds because they lived in cracks and holes in the ground” — or “Queen of Our Underworld,” Reid’s sobriquet for her snake — meaning, I think, Australia, as the land down under? — but many snakes (if not her python) are literally denizens, for several months of the year, of a hidden world underneath us but never far away from us. They’re buried, concealed, protected in the unseen depths, vast communities of alien familiars, secret companions.
And then, some warm afternoon, they appear, uncovered, unearthed, and we see them either for the noble beings that they are, or we “miss [our] chance with one of the lords of life.” As Annie Dillard wrote, “beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them.”
As an addendum: We came across this tiny garter snake lying on its back on a stump on a 60-degree day last week. It was alive, though very still, but as temps were forecast to be 28F the next night, I hope it was able to move to a makeshift den in the hours left before the freeze. We considered moving it to a warmer spot, one with more sun shining on it, but decided the snake probably knew best.
Featured image: a very cold garter snake found on a shaded trail in Andover NH on 21 Nov. 2017, which we did move to this warmer, sunnier spot.