8 years ago I went down to Oklahoma to visit my in-laws with my family. They had a piece of land outside of Oklahoma City that had a pond on it. I have family from the southern United States so I know about the various reptiles that exist there, and they are not friendly. As my sons and I went walking around the tall grass and scrub trees in my in-laws back yard the only thing on my mind was “watch out for Cotton Mouths, watch out for Copperheads, watch out for…..” you get the idea. Part of this was paternal, I was watching out for my sons that were walking around the yard with me, but honestly the larger part was a true fear of being ambushed by a poisonous snake. Where did that come from !?!?!?!
When I was a kid I did not grow up in the most hospitable place in the world. Eastern Wyoming has many things that I miss, but the reality is that it is high desert. The weather is extreme and some of the animals are less than excited to see you. I used to go hiking for hours and, brace yourselves if you are carry your water bottle around with you 24/7, and wouldn’t drink any water until we go home. That was in 85-95 degree heat and no humidity, but that was how we did things back then. We thought it was really cool to carry a metal canteen around with a shoulder strap because that is what soldiers did, but not necessarily because we felt the need to “re-hydrate”.
It was on one of these hiking expeditions that my brother and I decided to climb our favorite SANDSTONE cliff. The reason for the caps is so that you will all remember from this day forward that sandstone cliffs are not a great climbing choice (in case you needed some guidance on climbing in Southeastern Wyoming). Do you know what happens to a sandstone foothold when you step on it? I don’t know either, that’s the point! It might hold, and it might just crumble like the oatmeal-raisin-applesauce-honey cookie that my mom had me take on the hike.
Back to snakes, on this particular hot and sunny day my brother and I started up the face of the cliff in the late morning. That is important because in the morning snakes like to get out in the sun to warm their bodies from a cold, dry desert night. I know that desert might not seem to characterize Eastern Wyoming for some of you that I grew up with, but in the summer it is hot and very dry, so it seems appropriate. As my brother (or me, stories change over time, I honestly don’t remember which of us did this first. I do know that the one that does it second is the true idiot, so let’s assume I was the second) pulled himself up to the top of the cliff that we were climbing and raised himself up to find that he was facing a rattle snake that was warming himself right in front of the hand hold that we had used to get up there.
Funny thing is, my brother and I didn’t run home, we didn’t decide not to hike or climb again, we didn’t develop a tremendous fear of snakes. In fact we probably went and climbed that cliff at least 2 to 3 more times that summer.
Earlier than that though was the “Tomato Dusting Incident”. My parents tried their best to have a garden in the hard, red clay that comprised every inch of our property. To their credit I think they did more with infertile, hard soil than most. We had a pretty good garden when I was a kid. I hated it of course because no kid wants to weed a garden in 90 degree heat, and I didn’t like most vegetables so where’s the profit for me right?
This particular day, when I was young enough to not know any better I was walking around bare foot like I would usually do in the summer. It was a stupid thing to do with the hard, rocky ground, and the prickly pear cactus, and every other thing that warns humans not to step there. I was lazy and I was tough, or I was tough and I was lazy, the order is important I suppose. My mom was dusting tomato plants that were about up to her knee so that they would not get infested with bugs. The bushes were tall enough and thick enough that you could not see the ground underneath so when I went in to help my mom I immediately pulled my foot back because I thought that I had stepped on a toad. When I pulled the bush back I found myself looking at a coiled up prairie rattler.
My dad was gone at work so my mom asked our neighbor to come over and take care of it, and take care of it he did. He came over with a handgun that was more fitting for taking down a mountain lion than a rattle snake and blew the thing to pieces. You would think after an incident like that I would have made sure that I put my shoes on every time that I went outside after that. Nope, I might have been a little bit more careful before putting my barefoot in a place that is hidden, but I still, to this day, can be caught going outside in my bare-feet when I shouldn’t.
So why was I so scared to walk around my in-laws yard in pants and a pair of shoes? Well I had not run into many poisonous snakes for years prior to that, so I was out of practice. Over time our experiences that taught us important lessons disappear through lack of exposure. Over time we watch stupid television shows that play on our fears and therefore teach us to fear. I know that there is a difference between fear and responsible behavior but at some point fearful behavior can be justified as responsible behavior because it is surely safe. That is a danger that I think that we face in our world is that our fears can be projected onto other people or other things and so we can justify our course of action because it is a safe action without realizing what it does to our spirit. Sure I have taken a safe course, but I gave up the adventure, I gave up the risk that has to come if I want to experience the reward.
Instead of exposing ourselves to new experiences, new people, or new ideas we tend to think that we need to be protected from them in order to keep ourselves safe. I cannot imagine the marriage that I would have with my wife if she and I had not been willing to fight over a few things. Through those few brush-ups I learned about my wife, and she learned about me, and we came closer together . I still to this day fear more abstract things than tangible things. If you asked me what I feared most, a snake in the grass or financial insecurity, I would ask for the snake.