(Essay) Snake Story by Judy Foster

Meet Mago Contributor Judy Foster.

Australian snakes are among the most beautiful and efficient creatures of the bush. They come in a range of sizes with varying degrees of toxicity, or none at all, and, in most cases, go about their business peacefully. Their colours and protective patterns are wonderfully varied, and suited to their environment. Surprisingly, snakes are deaf – they have no ears but use their forked tongues to smell and sense the presence of prey. They can feel the movement of larger creatures through the movement vibrations of body contact with the earth of larger creatures, including humans.

This appears to be Australian Indigenous women’s art, found in Carnarvon Gorge in central Queensland. It features the Rainbow Serpent surrounded by Vulva symbols engraved into the pure white walls at one place in the Gorge, great symbolism of Creation, Birth and New Life. The Rainbow Serpent resides in water holes and represents both New Life, and Death (Regeneration?). Photo by Judy Foster.
This appears to be Australian Indigenous women’s art, found in Carnarvon Gorge in central Queensland. It features the Rainbow Serpent surrounded by Vulva symbols engraved into the pure white walls at one place in the Gorge, great symbolism of Creation, Birth and New Life. The Rainbow Serpent resides in water holes and represents both New Life and Death (Regeneration?). Photo by Judy Foster.

Snakes are an inevitable part of life in the country and were often seen at my family property on the banks of the Murray River 80 miles east of Mildura. Our house, one of two situated each side of a river bend opposite a steep sandbar, had a wonderful view of the wide river and blazing summer sunsets. In the 1940s we were somewhat isolated, the nearest neighbour being 9 miles east, the mailbox 10 miles north, and our nearest town 25 miles west. The woolshed, together with its grain bin repositories for numerous mice, the Murray pine log blacksmith’s ‘shop’, and shearers’ huts, was situated between the two houses. Grain for stock feed and reject apples (used for bait during rabbit plagues) were stored at various times in these buildings and attracted mice which the snakes helped to control. So it was around these buildings that snakes and their sinuous tracks were most prominent on the sandy paths during the warmer months. The summers were long and hot – it was common to experience several successive days over 40 degrees, while winters were often frosty cold with ground fogs.

The general rule on the property was to respect the snakes and leave them alone: they would not bother you if you didn’t bother them. The men never killed them unless they were in the gardens or very close to the houses. As children it was impressed upon my sister and me never to walk through long grass or move outside at night without a torch so as to avoid stepping on one. The most common snakes were the leisurely black and brown snakes, which, although very venomous, were slow to anger. For some reason we rarely saw tiger snakes around the buildings, which although numerous, seemed to prefer their own space elsewhere.

One of my earliest memories was of my mother (herself a country girl from a property near far-distant Albury, also on the Murray), with my father’s shot gun balanced on her hip, shooting at an errant snake which was crossing the house verandah where we used to regularly play. She killed at least two snakes in this manner (another notable instance being when she found a snake in our kitchen), each time not only killing the offending snake, but also blowing a large hole in the floorboards. There was a hole in the corner of the kitchen and one on the verandah, both of which remained unrepaired for some time, as I recall.

A second memorable experience with snakes occurred during one holidays after I’d left boarding school and was studying in Melbourne. I used to go back to our Murray home whenever I could. One May holidays when the days and nights were growing colder and the Murray was in flood, I decided to row our flat bottomed boat along the high river flat behind our house which was newly covered in water. Rowing along the river at any time was an enjoyable time of contemplation, discovery and listening. It was magical rowing silently among the lignum bushes some distance from the house where at other times we’d often gone for walks. This day I came upon an unexpected sight: a small ‘island’ a few metres wide and about 10 metres long with water lapping land less than a few centimetres high. To my amazement I saw numerous coiled black and brown snakes which had been hibernating below ground, having taken refuge there from the rising flood waters.  Although snakes are normally solitary creatures, these creatures lay coiled and still, each a short distance from the next, ignoring the others in their extremity. A few grey lignum bushes with their sparse long leather-hard and whippy stalky stems and ‘leaves’ provided their only shelter.

Snakes, like other reptiles, require warmth to keep mobile, so, because it was a cold morning, I knew they would not be easily disturbed, so I decided to tether the boat and walk among them the length of the ‘island’, to observe and marvel how so many large snakes could remain so oblivious to the presence of each other. (It is apparently not unusual for wild animals which are natural enemies to act this way in emergency situations.) This little ‘island’ studded with dark glistening tightly coiled spirals and circles…why did I do this? It seemed to be an experience I’d never have again – to be so close – I wanted to, something drew me to them. I did feel sorry for those cold snakes, they were so exposed with nowhere to hide away, so helpless in their chilly lethargy… (Needless to say I did not tell my parents about this until a long time later!) But throughout this most amazing and strange experience some kind of elemental force seemed to give me the feeling it was perfectly safe – and enriching – to enjoy this experience. Looking back the forty something years since this happened I am no wiser about it – except to realise that perhaps it was connected to the spirit that lives in the land so well known to the Indigenous people.

This certainly seems to have been the case with my second memorable experience with snakes which occurred perhaps twenty years ago when a cousin (a close friend) and I went for a picnic one day in Sydney’s  Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Ku-ring-gai is interesting year round but spring is magical: many wildflowers appear, many of them we no longer see anywhere else. Rock formations and unexpected vistas appear as one follows the bush tracks. So it was a warm spring day we chose to walk by Indigenous stone engravings and early wild flowers. For our lunch place we chose a pile of large flat rocks on the side of a small hill not far from the pathway. My cousin sat on one low flat rock and I sat on another one opposite to her. I remember we were discussing the Indigenous relationship to land and such mysteries as story lines and sacred sites as we began our sandwiches. As we were talking we suddenly noticed a light brown snake had appeared, coming quite rapidly from among the rocks some distance away and quietly moving towards our rock seats. By this time we had become silent and still as we watched in amazed fascination, the snake (which must have known we were there since snakes can sense the presence of warm-blooded creatures) proceeded to glide through the gap between our two rocks, so close that either of us could have picked it up. Then it continued to move smoothly and purposefully away to disappear among more distant rocks.

This was a stunning experience which we still talk about today, pondering the meaning: why would a snake choose to ignore our human presence and come so close to us without fear of harm? Was it unafraid because we were not afraid? Was it just a coincidence we happened to have been thinking about mysteries of the land and concern for the First People at the time?

In more recent times I have had the good fortune to experience snakes again in the bush, At one place at Gariwerd (the Victorian Grampian Mountains) while walking along a tourist path to a waterfall, we found ourselves pacing a red-bellied black snake as it wove its way parallel to us along the hillside above the path, so close we could almost have touched it. Again, while in Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park, we came across a sleepy black-headed sand python as it moved very slowly across the road in front of us. Having seen this snake in a number of Indigenous paintings, it was a treasured experience to see its beauty in reality. At all times in the bush I am very aware of ancient spiritual forces present, almost tangible at times, especially in Kakadu, at Uluru in Central Australia, and Gariwerd.

I have since discovered that throughout prehistory when the female principle was paramount, snakes were an important symbol associated with the female Earth Mother, birth, death, and renewal, and were considered dangerous but not evil. From their shape and movement came the circle and spiral images which were among the earliest motifs engraved by humans. Snakes were feared and respected by Australian Indigenous people in the form of the Rainbow Snake, which was often known to inhabit certain waterholes and streams and was associated with child birth – and death and renewal in some instances. Northern Neolithic people also respected and revered the snake as, for instance, was the case in Crete. Here two important female snake deities still testify as to the importance of the snake as a potent life-giving female symbol.

Snakes in prehistory and in Indigenous thought did not represent evil as they do in, for example, the Christian Bible. Plato, in his Timaeus, explains this patriarchal idea when he tells us that the snake was ‘the most stupid’ of the land animals because it was always in full contact with the earth: as snakes’ ‘whole bodies lay stretched upon the earth, the god turned [them] into reptiles, giving them no feet, for they had no use for them’. (Plato, in Val Plumwood, 1993:92).

Because of my unusual experiences with snakes I would view them as dangerous, but never evil; for me they are objects of mystery, wonder and awe, superbly adapted as they are to their environment as marvellous efficient hunters fulfilling their own important role. They are worthy of everyone’s respect and appreciation.

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