During the first twenty years of my life, a time I mostly spent romping around the woods and fields of Sand Mountain (that’s in northeastern Alabama, for you heathens), I saw exactly two venomous snakes. One was a cottonmouth swimming in a catfish pond, who took one look at me and swam the other way; the second was a copperhead sunning himself on a rock next to that same pond. I was able to sneak up close enough to spy on the copperhead for about two seconds before he, also, detected my presence and bolted.
There are, in fact, four venomous snakes native to my home state: the water moccasin, the copperhead, the coral snake, and an assortment of rattlesnakes. (The latter two varieties managed to elude me for the entire two decades, despite my habit of placing myself very much in their way. To this day I’ve never seen a rattlesnake or a coral snake outside of an open glass tank in a church … but that’s a story for another day.) The majority of the snakes in the region are harmless to humans, or even highly beneficial, efficient predators on mice, rats, moles, and other farmyard pests.
Despite the paucity of truly dangerous reptiles in the state, my grandmother — whose attitudes about wildlife owed more to the early chapters of the Book of Genesis than to the Peterson Field Guides — viewed every legless reptile as an enemy not just to be killed on sight, but to be hacked to pieces and the pieces tossed out into the dirt road in front of the house on the flat of a shovel.
This campaign was only nominally successful: Grandmother managed to bar the serpent from the house, barn and outbuildings, but made little or no progress outside those walls. As a result, the snakes were all somewhere else, and the safest place for a field mouse or a rat was, naturally, indoors, with us.
Anyone who has spent time on a farm knows that the damage a mouse can do to a bin of grain, flour, or animal feed is completely disproportionate to the creature’s size. Happy little Mickey or Minnie, like Caligula at the feast, will eat until he or she can barely walk, then poop and pee and start again. While there is a limit to just how much a mouse can eat in twenty-four hours, the rodents can apparently produce enough urine and feces in a few days to reduce seventy-five pounds of feed to so much foul-smelling compost.
Traps, of course, only winnow out the most foolish of the invaders, leaving the smartest in total command of the field. Poison is likewise useless, since putting it in the feed bin would defeat the purpose entirely, and even if the vermin can be induced to consume the poison elsewhere, they will almost always crawl off somewhere unsuitable to die and putrefy afterwards — such as the feed bins.
The solution to this dilemma would seem obvious: let nature do what nature does and allow the rodents’ natural predator to fulfil its function. For my grandmother this was not an option. The snakes had to be killed, always, on sight, with no hesitation, and damn the consequences. This was her way, and no amount of logic or empirical evidence was going to make her do things any differently.
In Alabama, among the poorest states, doctors in 2012 wrote 143 prescriptions for opioids such as Oxycontin for every 100 residents — the highest rate in the nation. Heroin use is also increasing while life expectancy is declining for white, working-class men in Alabama and other so-called “Red States”, those dominated by conservative politics. At the same time, this same voting bloc overwhelmingly supports conservatives, and actively and voiciferously opposes any programs or initiatives that might serve to improve their situation.
Such dedication to working against our own self-interest is hardly rare. We see it again and again among gay Republicans; immigrants and children of immigrants who rail against the evils of immigration; African-Americans who support racist politicians and political movements; the working poor who fight tooth and nail to deny themselves healthcare or affordable housing or a living wage. The list goes on and on.
My grandmother was not a fool. She was, however, a product of her time and her environment, and for reasons that I’ve never fully understood, in all of her ninety-odd years of life she was never able to transcend those limitations.
Likewise, all over this country we see ordinary men and women surrender their birthright to demogogues and oligarchs who openly declare that they intend to use that power to degrade and diminish them and their children, and their children’s children, for as long as that power endures.
In Alabama, in Mississippi, in Arkansas, in Texas, in Louisiana … starved for jobs, for education, for opportunity, for perspective, otherwise reasonable citizens embrace again and again the political forces that have systematically brought them to such dire conditions — and the worse things get the more enthusiastically they support their oppressors, and the more brutally they lash out at anyone who might propose to improve their lot.
What’s to be done? Better minds than mine have been grappling with this question, and as of this writing, no answers seem to be forthcoming. The man relying on welfare for his family’s survival will avidly support a politician dedicated to depriving him of that last desperate resource; that Sand Mountain farm woman’s passion to destroy snakes was greater than her need to feed her family and her livestock.
My grandmother believed. She did not assess the facts, consider the consequences, or weigh the alternatives. Her questions came with the answers already attached, readymade, replete and eternal, and no matter how much harm those answers might do to her and to those she loved, she would consider no others. Had it been my grandmother that the serpent encountered there in the Garden of Eden, not only would the apple have remained untasted, but that snake would have been lucky not to end up reduced to bite-sized pieces and tossed out into the road on the flat of a manure spade. My grandmother would have remained there in that garden, safe and secure and forever limited, trapped in a wonderful prison.
When a loud, booming voice tells you that what you can see with your own eyes is a lie, and that only by allowing someone bigger and stronger than you to grind you into the dirt can you ever achieve greatness, there are those who resist, who rear up and defy the giant floating face. Others tell themselves “Yes! The Big Voice is so much greater than me, it must have all the right answers!” and seal their minds and hearts and wait for the greatness to descend upon them.
What the serpent offered Eve was not money, or fame, or power over her enemies; he tempted her with something even more awesome and more terrible: he offered her knowledge, and that knowledge cost her the garden and gave her the world.
It’s a difficult choice, but we all have to make it sooner or later.
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3 thoughts on “Sweet Poison”
I love your Grandma.
Wow, David, this is good. You write so well. Love the Garden of Eden bit. You are so right! She would have killed the serpent. And been trapped in Paradise! How astute of you!! Love it!
I like the way you can make a statement without being offensive. I mean, you can state your case, and not have those who may disagree with you ready to string you up and draw and quarter you. By the way, I do happen to agree with you. Surprised? I am sure you are …
I love this piece, David.