“Rachel and I can’t decide whether to go down to the creek or not.”
Our home north of Atlanta has a fantastic backyard. A little lawn near the house drops away dramatically into a wooded slope of sixty-foot trees before plunging to a creek at the property line.
After two years of admiring the creek from a distance, Erin (12) began to take a more active interest in the past year, spending long hours exploring it with friends. During the winter, they could retain the illusion that they were the only living things present. But spring has brought the return of tangible biodiversity, and in recent weeks, Erin’s least favorite living thing has re-appeared on the property — snakes. That’s what had her second-guessing her fantastic new pastime.
“What’s the problem?” I asked, knowing.
“Seriously. What should we do?” She and Rachel sat on the couch, dramatically-knit tween foreheads fully deployed.
“You should go to your room and curl up in a ball on the floor.”
She switched to Unamused Tween Expression #4. “I’m sure you have a point.”
Silly thing to be sure of, knowing me as she does. But she was right.
“If your only goal is to be safe, it’s your best move. But if you want a good life, you need to spend some time figuring out which fears are worth having.”
“Snakes, Dad, duh. It’s a fear worth having.”
“Not if it isn’t going to happen.”
“But it might!”
She’s right. It might. But I want her to learn to balance risk and reward — to recognize that too manic an obsession with safety wrings all of la joie out of la vivre, that we too often worry about the wrong things anyway, and that a little knowledge can often do more than anything else to put fears in perspective.
Now — before we get to the part where I sagely assuage my daughter’s overblown fear, let me point out that I have fears of my own, that my family has lovely sport with those fears, and that they are wrong. My fears are sensibly directed at an awesome predator, one much larger than myself — the cow.
Okay. I can hear your self-righteous tittering. You know what, forget the word ‘cow.’ Cows are named ‘Bessie.’ Cows jump over the moon. Call them cattle and now who’s laughing? Cattle stampede, don’t they. Why yes they do. And when the bulls run in Pamplona, people run too. Like mad. And cows, you will surely know, have long been associated with human death. Mad cow disease? Look at the middle word. So don’t you sit there and jeer at me. Okay then.
(Back to my daughter’s baseless fears.)
It so happens that I had a quick chat with Google after our first snake sighting last year. “Did you know there are 41 types of snakes native to this part of the country?”
“That’s supposed to help?”
“…and that 35 of them are harmless, that only two of the remaining six venomous snakes are in this actual area, and that both of those have very distinctive patterns? Did the snakes you’ve seen have clear patterns?”
“No. They were just kind of grey. But it was hard to see because they were moving away so fast.”
“Moving where now?”
“To getting a running start at you?”
I know where she’s coming from. We see something wicked in certain animals. Spiders scare us off our tuffets. Snakes hand us problematic apples. We invest them with a kind of evil agency. They WANT to be and do bad. And no matter how much I know about the natural world, I am aware of a tiny sliver of this nonsense, probably wedged in my midbrain somewhere, that still sees them this way. Even though it IS nonsense, it’s really hard to shake. Our conditioning runs deep.
But shaking it was the key to getting Erin back to the creek, and the key to shaking it was thinking adaptively. We had to pry loose the picture of the snake, bwahaha, looking for an opportunity to bite the 100 lb. primate. There’s just nothing in it for the snake — nothing, that is, but a very good chance of getting fatally danced upon. It’s simple selection. Those snakes with a tendency to bite for the evil fun of it wouldn’t generally live to pass on those bitey genes. Eventually you have yourself a population of snakes that will bite the hairless monkey only as a very last resort, e.g. when taken unawares.
I told her these things, and she nodded. “Hm.”
“You both want the same thing, so do yourself and the snake a favor. Make some noise as you approach the creek. Take a stick and rustle the leaves in front of you. Every snake will take off like a shot and have a great story for his friends tonight. If all else fails and you end up next to a snake, it is almost certainly not venomous. And if it is, it almost certainly won’t bite you. It will run like hell.”
“And if it is poisonous, and it does bite me?”
“We’re three minutes from a hospital, and they’ll give you an antivenin, and you’ll be fine.”
She pondered warily.
“And I’ll give you a hundred dollars.”
Big hug, and she was off for the creek, planning how to spend it.