Monday, October 26, 2009

random, if not slightly stupid, act of kindness

i think i saved a northern water snake yesterday. (i say "think" because i couldn't spot the heat sensing pit between the nostril and the eye that are common to the family that water moccasins belong to — pit vipers, i believe. i never saw any fangs, either. maybe they were tucked up against the roof of his mouth. strangely enough, i can't recall if his pupils were elliptical or not. i'm thinking not. if my identification was off, then i'm dumber than i originally thought…and just as lucky.) anyway, he was trapped in the mesh that landscapers use to start patches of grass. not sure how long he had been there, but he was tangled up good. apparently, he went after a field mouse or some other rodent — successfully, i might add, judging from the bulge in his midsection — stealthily tracking it up the bank from the river…and on through the mesh.

i was out for a drive in God's country, trying to find some peace, and finding it in the overwhelming beauty along I-85 and its little random offshoots of backwoods country roads. the peace came not only from the beauty of the trees proudly displaying their fall fashion line in this season's hues of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and everything in between, but also from the fact that no large corporations were currently tearing it all down to build office complexes and malls.

i'm going to interject here in the interest of keeping it relatively short (i could post a few pages on just the drive alone), and cut to the part about the snake.

he was at a rest stop. (have you noticed that snakes are always "he"?) or more specifically, on the river bank next to a bridge, where, as i mentioned at the beginning of this post, landscapers were trying to grow grass. the bridge led to a vietnam vet memorial for north carolinians who served — and gave up their lives — in the war. (not to get off the subject again, but the memorial itself was a haven. simple and bold, it was built within an earthen "bowl," the memorial surrounded by a circular barrier of impossibly lush, green grass, and featured a curved wall built with handmade bricks, each carved with the name of a soldier who died or went missing in that war. trees and benches were placed sparingly along a brick pathway that encircled a large patch of grass that made up the middle of the monument. All in all, a nice serene place to remember those who gave up their lives for whatever reason we engaged in that horrible war.)

back to the snake, and from here on out, staying on the snake. i promise.

so it was on my way back from the memorial to the rest stop parking lot that i saw the snake. not sure how i missed it on my way there — it was about 3-1/2 to 4 feet long, and it's dark reddish/bluish-grey body stood out sharply against the pale yellow of the straw. at first i thought, "cool," but then i started noticing things: the fact that he just ate (which was still on the "cool" scale), the fact that his head was missing (tipping toward "uncool"), and the fact that thin green plastic strings were crisscrossed and embedded in its torso (we've fallen completely off the "cool" scale now). my curiosity was piqued, and when my curiosity is piqued, i am not content to just sit and watch…i like to interact. so i detoured around the edge of the bridge, through a little of the grass-to-be, and down into some rocks to keep a safe distance in case his head decided to materialize.
from this new vantage point i could see that his head was not missing, but hidden…under the green mesh and straw. i could also see with more clarity just how serious the green mesh problem was. and my heart dropped.

another interjection (but still on topic!):
i have a love and respect for all creatures, from spiders and flying bugs to feral cats and african plains-roaming elephants, and everything in between. i'm all for the "cycle of life," of letting nature run its course (for instance, if the snake would have been caught by a raccoon or something), but this was nothing of the sort. this was man intruding — even if for good intentions (attractive landscaping) — on nature, and the snake did not have this scenario wired into its dna. no special sensors to detect plastic mesh. this is when i like to take action and intervene. i realize that most people would just frown a little and walk on, maybe even thinking, "poor snake," but i'm not wired like most people.

so, i searched for a large, strong branch of reasonable length to stimulate the snake; i needed to know if its head was stuck, or if instead it was camouflaged with a stealthy purpose in mind. the branch i found was perfect: strong, thick, long enough to prod with, short enough to pry with, and forked at the end, in case i needed to pin its head so i could get in close. i touched the snake's body (with the stick) and he moved a little, but no head. I put the stick underneath him and lifted...and his head popped out of the straw. but my heart sank even farther when i saw the condition of his head. he was so tightly ensconced in the mesh, that it was digging under his scales, into his flesh. my work was cut out for me, and it was at this point that i wondered if i should just leave. what could i do? no scissors, no knife…nothing but a stick. animals are getting caught — and killed — in or by human-made objects all the time — road kill being the perfect example. what could i do about that?
what could i do about this?
i could try.
so i did.

my only option was to use the fork with the sharpest end, and dig it underneath the sections of string and pull until the stress snapped them. this was easy at first, as the snake was facing uphill (where i was positioned), so i could dig under the string with his scales instead of against them. it wasn't easy snapping the mesh, though. they pulled apart with relative swiftness when using my hands, as there were two forces acting upon the string in opposite directions, but when using the stick with the snake, the only opposing force to my pulling was the tension of the mesh and/or the weight of the snake. the last scenario was the worst. i knew i was hurting the snake, but i kept telling myself the alternative was worse. so with this pathetic technique, I slowly freed his head.

now you may be thinking to yourself, "you freed the snake's head first?!? what a dumb@$$." hear me out…
there were two good reasons for this: one, his head was being mangled by the way in which he was tangled — parts of his face were being pulled in two different directions at once; and two, i wanted to give him more freedom to be able to move — in essence, help him help himself.
yes, he tried to strike me several times; too many to count. but i was always aware of the distance i needed to keep from him as more of him became free. most of the time he would strike when i put immense amounts of pressure on him while trying to break the strings. the force i was putting on those thin but maddeningly strong filaments lifted him off the ground, which, i can say, he wasn't too happy about. his head would flatten and take on a triangular shape like that of a viper's, and his mouth would open wide, as though he thought he could swallow me. sometimes he would strike, other times he would just pose with flat head and open mouth. but my line of thinking paid off, as he did just what i wanted him to — slithered and writhed and turned — and by the end of it, he and i had a mutual understanding. for the last ten to fifteen minutes i pulled and poked and strained and snapped, and he took it all bravely. no more flattened head, no more open mouth, no more striking. just resolved himself to bear with it until it was over.

perhaps he knew we had made significant progress.

an hour after all this began — an hour filled with frustration and tension and moments of disappointment and elation — i had to leave him to make it out on his own. he was 90% free, and i had to tell myself that as soon as he digested his meal, he would be able to squeeze out of the remaining bonds.

i went back to my car feeling good, feeling right. i think that may have been the driving purpose behind rescuing the snake: because it was right.
This world today is lacking a sense of right, and i'm not saying everyone needs to go out and rescue snakes trapped in landscaping mesh, but it would, at least every once in a while, help to not put yourself first. extend yourself to others, especially those in need. try to see things from others' points of view. open yourself to the idea that, as impossible as it may seem, the world does not revolve around you. you are more than likely the only one that thinks you're the greatest thing since sliced bread. how does that bumper sticker go..."practice random acts of kindness"? there was a movie called "pay it forward." i never saw it, but heard enough about it to get the gist, and i know this: the concept works, but only if you bury your selfishness first.

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