Magical encounters of the serpentine kind

A month ago, a snake lay across my path. Still and… snakelike.

It felt potent, like a visit from the wild world. I hunkered down on my haunches at a respectful distance, thinking “oh hello!”, expecting her (a wandering garter snake) to whoosh away, but the only thing that moved was her tongue – flick, flick, in and out, as she sniffed the air, taking her measure of me.

My mind bee-lined to the least interesting places first – is this an omen? Or a sign? “Do you have a message for me?” I thought, pondering the dramas of my morning, hoping her presence was some kind of riddle clue, (as if my dramas are everyone else’s dramas…) Nothing came to mind… I couldn’t connect the dots.

I slowed myself, because I have heard mythologist and storyteller Martin Shaw speak of giving something in nature 12 secret names, as a practice of attention, and I wondered if I have anything like the poet’s capacity to do that…

Over the course of my encounter with this snake, I had to gear down, three, four, five times… stop interjecting, stop narrating, stop…

I need to ask better questions, I thought.

“Is there anything you want from me? And my two legs and opposable thumbs?” I figured I could probably be handy to the poor no-legger, belly-crawler.

(Huh, straight to transaction, as if relationship exists there, in the exchange, in the doing, and not in all the moments of presence, inquiry, before the ask or action.)


“How are you?” I said. (She was still, to my surprise, lingering.) “It’s very nice to see you. You are very beautiful.”

Courtesy, right? Common courtesy. If we want to be in relationship with the more-than-human world, it probably starts with the basic courtesy that defines human relationships – greeting, acknowledgement…

She was utterly utterly still. A sinewy stillness. An ant crawled over her face. She didn’t move. I sat still, trying to match her stillness. I could see her heart beat, the rhythmic rise and fall of part of her body, nothing else moved. Can our heart fields meet? I wondered, thinking my thinking word brain was probably getting in the way. I tried to slow down more, tune into my chest, my heart. For a second I thought I could feel it pulse.

“Are you okay?” I asked. “Your people always move so fast. I don’t get to visit like this.”

I watched a little longer. Crossed over and sat on her other side. She retracted her head a little, her neck becoming an S.

“Your form is beautiful,” I admired. “This is the blessing,” I realized at last. “Just being together.”

Then she folded back on herself and I wondered if she’d make a shape, an infinity sign, still looking for a sign that this is magic, not just random, and then, as if to say, “there are times to be still, and there are times to go back the way you came,” whoosh, she vanished, in a flicker. There are times to move fast, too, apparently.

Rubber boa

What did it all mean? Except I am the lucky one, encountered. I was encountered. I had this encounter. We encountered one another.

At last, it was enough.

6 weeks later, on my bike, pedalling up hill, a snake lies across the trail. This time, it is a rubber boa, a rare gentle creature, an even less likely encounter, and I remember what not to do. I do not ask her for her message, I do not grasp psychically for significance and meaning, I do not assault her with all my desperate questions and attempts to be in relationship and all my presumptions that my thumbs and legs are really all that special. I lean my bike against a tree, squat down on my haunches, and say, “hello, what a true pleasure it is to encounter you today.”

And I sit and watch for ten minutes, and take a few photos (after asking permission of course), and I interpret her slowness (as opposed to her sudden disappearance) as permission, and after I have watched her slowly insinuate herself in the cavity beneath a rock, where she will be completely invisible to passersby, I understand at last that this is what magic is. It is very quiet. It doesn’t announce itself with great drama. No lightning bolts shoot out your fingers, or shoot at you. Bushes don’t catch on fire. Messages aren’t whispered in spooky voices.

It is just noticing, allowing your body and mind to become still enough to just sit, notice, encounter, and realize, deeply, and in a way that you can barely put words to, but will never forget, that something quite mysterious is at work, holding the world together. And you in it.

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