tom walsh


I was at a cross-country meet recently with our high school team in Parker, Arizona, when one of the runners told me she had just seen a rattlesnake.  Since I love snakes and hadn't seen a rattlesnake in the wild in years, I got kind of excited, so she took me to show it to me.  It was huge--easily the biggest rattler I'd ever seen in its natural habitat--and it was coiled beneath the branches of a bush that had lost most of its leaves for the fall.

We were able to get quite close to it, given the fact that there were thick branches between us and it.  A couple of times it even rattled to warn us to stay away when our feet cracked a branch or when it thought we were getting a bit too close for its comfort.  When that happened, we backed up a few inches and continued to share some time with this marvelous serpent.  Since we were so close, we were able to see many details that I haven't seen so clearly, even in zoos--the tongue darting in and out, the intricate patterns of its skin, the rattle at the end of its tail that lay atop its body in its coiled position, the graceful curves of its neck as it raised its head to be able to determine whether we were a threat or not.  It was a magnificent creature.

Then I went and got my wife and brought her to see it, and she was able to enjoy its presence, also.

As I walked away, I started to think of just how dangerous the encounter hadn't been.  We had kept our distance, and we had been careful not to provoke the snake into feeling that it had to defend itself.  We had pretty carefully looked at the situation and determined the limits of what we could do--the thick branches made it impossible for the snake to strike us, so we were completely safe where we were standing.  We had a wide-open space behind us, so if the snake did start coming after us (highly unlikely--snakes prefer to avoid confrontation!), we had plenty of time and space to move very far away very quickly.  We also had respect for the animal, and we only wanted to see it, not to bother it.

And I thought of what kinds of actions would have made our encounter dangerous or even tragic.  If we had tried to get closer or tried to improve our view by moving branches, we would have given the snake the wrong message, and the snake could have struck out in defense.  If we had tried to provoke the snake into moving or rattling more by poking it with a stick or throwing rocks at it, we also could have provoked a dangerous response--or at the very least caused it to leave, thus ruining our chance to share some time with it.

And I could see very clearly just how similar this situation was to the rest of our lives--how much of what happens to us in life is the direct result of actions that we decide to take, words we decide to say, or precautions that we decide aren't necessary?  How many of the "bad" things that happen to us are the result of our own silliness or carelessness or ignorance?

That rattlesnake would have caused us harm only if we would have provoked it or if we would have done something silly that seemed to be provocation.  People we know react very often to things that seem to be something that they see as threatening, and their reactions can be very harmful to us if we aren't careful.  But if we are careful, if we do look at the situation and make educated decisions about what actions we should or should not take, then we can keep ourselves out of harm's way.

I know some people who wouldn't have gone to look at the snake because they would have thought it was "too dangerous."  They never would have learned that it wasn't dangerous at all, as long as we followed our common sense and acted very carefully.  Rattlesnakes are gentle creatures who prefer to avoid confrontation, but who will defend themselves when provoked; but then, how many of us aren't willing to do the same thing when someone provokes us?


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