Snake in a tree

Mystery does not begin and end with the Big Questions – Why are we here, How can evil exist in a benign universe, How can nirvana include samsara. Mystery is much more particular than that. The core of every being or event is inexpressable; all poets and artists know this. The world eludes our grasp in a manner that is both simple and profound.

How does a snake move without appendages? It seems as unlikely as speech without articulation. It can barely see, yet somehow it manages to find the right branch to take it where it wants to go. At key junctures, you watch it pause and lift its head, opening the mouth a little. The head and first six inches of its five-foot body nod and sway. Clearly it is weighing options, it is thinking – but how? What kind of thoughts? Its keenest senses are attuned to heat and motion. A snake would almost certainly not form mental pictures as we know them. Imagine yourself listening through every bone in your body. You think of Polynesian mariners, able to feel the presence of islands hundreds of miles distant by feeling the subtle shifts in ocean currents.

Like all predators, a snake is a creature that has evolved along with its prey – in the case of a black snake, small mammals such as mice and voles. They are fast-moving, fast-burning, fast breeder reactors. We like to say that mammals are warm-blooded and reptiles cold-blooded, as if the former is an advance over the latter. But nature is fundamentally non-hierarchical. Each strategy has unique advantages and trade-offs. The reptile’s core temperature is usually as high as a mammal’s; it is simply more closely tied to the temperature of its immediate environment. The drawback is that a reptile enjoys less liberty to go wherever and whenever it pleases. The advantage is that it can endure extremes of temperature that would kill a mammal. Also, without the energetic demands of an endotherm, reptiles tend to be on average much longer lived. And they know things no mammal can know, in a way it can never know them.

Members of many species of snakes and turtles live long enough to form intense bonds with their home ground. If transplanted and unable to find their way home, they starve to death. However knowledge is acquired, it must be organized mainly in the form of three-dimensional maps. So-called instinct can code for extraordinarily complex behaviors, but it still can’t tell the snake much about this tree, that branch. In its relatively brief and presumably intense period of juvenile development, it acquires intimate knowledge of territory: here there is shelter, here good hunting. The map consists of temperature patterns, networks of vibrations, felt with the same immediacy needed to maintain a constant body temperature. To borrow an image from Star Trek, the snake forms a mind-meld with its environment.

This suggests further that snakes do not dream. A current theory among evolutionary biologists holds that dreaming evolved as a way to organize and learn from experience. One can see its utility for short-lived creatures with a well-developed visual cortex. We know from the human sphere how well non-dreamers are able to prey on dreamers – usually by inhabiting the dream itself, or taking on something of its character. But such creativity, one suspects, is denied to the snake. What, then, does it have? It has time.

The snake is slow and capable of prolonged periods of apparent trance from which it can “awake” to sudden movement with no apparent transition whatsoever. We like to disparage the oldest parts of our brains as the reptile mind, as if it were some primitive thing. But in natural history, as in anthropology, it is the idea of the primitive that is primitive. The reptile mind responds to stimuli in a manner that is both simple and profound; one can no longer really speak of self and other, self and environment. I am this-climbing, this-eating, this-feeling.

The snake goes a couple feet along the wrong branch and stops. The darkness under the eaves isn’t getting closer this way. Stop and sway for five minutes, ten. Send tremors all through the limb. There, that other one… but the gap is a little too wide to bridge. The part of the brain/spinal cord that’s near the tail says here, and then begins to move so the head can take its place. The snake doubles back on itself like two trains running in opposite directions. By the time the tail gets to where the head had been, the head has reached the intersection and started down the other branch.

You expect the branch to bend down, but the snake knows better. Without the slightest hesitation it descends the increasingly slender branch to the very twig-end and straight out over the eighteen inches of empty space to the drainpipe. With the drainpipe as a support, the head enters the hole under the eaves even as the back half of the snake is still in the tree. It wastes no time, ever. From start to finish the whole climb takes only forty minutes, but to you it seems both brief and endless, a loop of tape you will replay more than once. Snake in a tree, you whisper. It has the unmistakable flavor of a dream.

I hope it almost goes without saying that much of this essay consists of speculation with no basis in science.

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