The gatekeepers


It’s after-hours at the reptile zoo. The last echoes from the last child’s excited shrieks have died away and the endless loop of jungle music has been switched off, along with the softly hissing fluorescent lights. Imagine what sounds must populate the stygian darkness, as Edgar Rice Burroughs would’ve called it: a slow whispering of scales against scales, the creaking and shuffling of homesick tortoises still trying to locate the bole of some coconut palm. The leaf-tailed geckoes’ suction-cup feet make faint popping noises as they climb the walls. A cricket chirps once, twice. A sudden scrambling from the cages of live mice and three dozen forked tongues crackle like static. Something small and deadly plops into a pool. An alligator takes its once-a-minute breath.


“More sophisticated interpretations of Genesis regard the serpent as mediator of understanding: human beings must be expelled from the Garden, which they have enjoyed unconsciously, in order to return to it with conscious appreciation in a perfected state… It is notable that both Kundalini and Christian imagery represent the serpent as gatekeeper of extraordinary power – be that power conceived as energy or awareness. The two snakes intertwined around the caduceus, symbol of the medical profession, evoke the serpent as gateway to healing.”

Ellen Crist, “Serpentes, the Ultimate Other,” in Wild Earth special issue, “Facing the Serpent,” Summer/Fall 2003


“The [human] brain evolved into its present form over a period of about two million years, from the time of Homo habilis to the late Stone Age of Homo sapiens, during which people existed in hunter-gatherer bands in intimate contact with the natural environment. Snakes mattered. The smell of water, the hum of a bee, the directional bend of a stalk mattered. The naturalist’s trance was adaptive: the glimpse of one small animal hidden in the grass could make the difference between eating and going hungry in the evening. And a sweet sense of horror, the shivery fascination with monsters and creeping forms that so delights us today even in the sterile hearts of the cities, could keep you alive until the next morning. Organisms are the natural stuff of metaphor and ritual. Although the evidence is far from all in, the brain appears to have kept all its old capacities, its channeled quickness. We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.”

E.O. Wilson, “The Serpent,” in ibid.


“Although I’ve been taught that scientists are supposed to be dispassionate observers, I’ve had problems living up to that ideal. It is impossible for me to view nature as a collection of unfeeling objects. I’m not just interested in living organisms and curious about their lives – I really love them. I especially adore the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Croatus adamanteus), the ‘king of rattlesnakes,’ as Manny Rubio calls it in his book, Rattlesnake. Just why I have an affinity for this creature I can’t say…

“My most memorable experience with a diamondback was a seemingly telepathic one. I was walking slowly along a transect in San Falesco Hammock, near Gainesville, conducting early morning bird surveys for my dissertation research. I was gazing up toward the treetops, listening for songs and calls, when suddenly the image of a diamondback came into my head, like a daydream. I glanced down, and right at my feet where I was about to step was a large diamondback in a resting coil. The strangest thing is that neither I not the diamondback were the slightest bit alarmed by this state of affairs. I sat down cross-legged about a foot from the snake, and for several minutes we silently communed, the snake slowly flicking its tongue and I just watching. I then stood up, stepped around the snake, and continued my survey.”

Reed F. Noss, “Another Dead Diamondback,” in ibid.


“Sadly, snakes are disappearing from many parts of the globe just when we are starting to understand their place in the world.”

Chris Mattison, Snake: The Essential Visual Guide to the World of Snakes, DK Publishing, 1999

“Green, how much I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches….”

(Verde, que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas….)

Federico Garcia Lorca, “Romance Sonambulo” (Sleepwalker’s Ballad)

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