Literature and music are replete with references to them. D.H. Lawrence was visited by one and, feeling honoured and overcome by this visitation, ended up penning a famous poem that surviving generations like us had to analyse and scrutinise closely between the lines. A snake came to my water trough today/And I in pyjamas for the heat....
Was it a real snake, asked our lecturer, or was it representative of something deeper, more psychological?
Poetry more often than not is all about peeling off layers and peering at the fresh view beneath. We were introduced to the 'otherness' of poetry - the art of saying one thing and meaning one thing more. Dylan on his religious-overtoned album Slow Train Coming sings 'God gave names to all the animals' where he references a 'snake in the grass'.
The legendary country singer Charlie Pride sang, Oh the snakes crawl at night/that's what they say/when the sun goes down/then the snakes will play. And Lloyd Cole has this: A girl needs a gun these days, hey, on account of all the rattlesnakes.
This is a girl that looks like Eve Marie Saint in On the Waterfront and reads Simone de Beauvoir. Surely they're all obliquely referring to some of us humans and inferring the 'hypnotically deadly'/'resplendent yet venomous' nature of mankind. At least I think they do.
David Attenborough, though, films a snake, shows you a snake, and you know there's no underlying meaning here. But it's fascinating how much more one gleans sometimes from just a two minute viewing of two of the deadliest reptiles alive, battling for territorial rights, or over a mate. Fascinating because we have mistakenly conditioned ourselves into thinking that our species is the only one with the power to reason. Not quite correct.
Here is a pair of cobras that pack instantly fatal venom engaged in a fight. One well-aimed spit and that should be that, but no, that is not how these majestically writhing creatures settle the issue. As a matter of fact, they battle by setting aside their deadliest weapon. This is a game of rules, one realises. No biting, no spitting, no venom. Just entwine and untwine endlessly until the stronger of the two succeeds in putting the other one down, whereupon the vanquished slithers away. No death, no destruction. Even the loser has a second chance to go somewhere else, begin anew find a mate and keep propagating the species because THE SPECIES MUST NOT DIE.
Battles for territory
Science has listed them under 'cold blooded'! Man, meanwhile, battles for territory (and a host of other things) vastly differently. First, in those old stone days, with rocks and flint arrows that took out one or two at a time. Then much later with revolvers and rifles, and even later with rifles fitted with powerful telescopic sights so man didn't even have to reveal himself. He learned he could be the sniper behind a rock on high, picking off a brother down below, possibly because the brother was another colour, or followed another 'path' as a poet would put it. Why only a rock?
He could go higher still. Aircraft, flying invisibly high, fitted with sophisticated computer gadgetry could lock in coordinates of suspect sites and in seconds render a deafening explosion, reducing a building to rubble, its occupants - men, women and innocent children - all locked in that one instantaneous relieving of breath.
Occasionally, the bomb might hit the wrong target - not the so-called terrorist hideout but a celebratory wedding party - and wipe it out. These are man's rules. This is how we territorialise. This is how we ensure there's not too much propagating of our species. This is 'us' in 'slow death' mode, erasing - as subtly as evolution - our presence from the planet. And science, in its wisdom, has listed us so-called 'rational beings' under 'warm blooded'. Even science has its odd ironic moment.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.