Sarah Bowen provides some creaturely resolutions and insights for the New Year.
“DON’T. STEP. BACKWARD,” my mother whispered forcefully to my father. He froze in place, camera in hand. Accordingly, my sister and I also ceased moving, two kids poised precariously atop a steep outcrop somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. We had all been mid photo op, recording a moment that now stands eternalized on grainy Super 8 film.
But someone is notably missing from that image—the western rattlesnake who my father nearly trod on. Yet, his memory lived on throughout my youth, as Amy and I were repeatedly warned about the dangers of snakebites. This conditioning did little to assuage us from our curiosity about them, though, and our amazement at how serpents could shed their skin in entirety.
Because although rattlesnakes expand and lengthen, their skin does not. And so, when they outgrow this piece of themselves, they merely shed it … and move on. In this way, the slithering ones can inspire helpful New Year’s resolutions.
Admittedly, our humankind has a long history of snake shaming through both sacred and secular stories—from the Bible’s Garden of Eden to Rudyard Kipling’s fear-inducing cobra couple Nag and Nagaina in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi to Lord Voldemort’s massive companion snake in the Harry Potter series.
Yet, other frameworks exist that are worth our consideration. The Chinese Zodiac suggests that while snake people may be seductive and slightly dangerous, at the same time they are intelligent, wise, and the most intuitive of all personalities. In some traditions, snakes helped birth our world, such as the feathered snake Quetzalcoatl, who featured prominently in Mesoamerican cultures for thousands of years. And it’s said the Dahomeyan snake god Danh circled the world around the middle to protect it from flying apart. Divine serpents have protected individuals as well, such as when the serpent king Mucalinda used his giant hood to shelter the Buddha from a torrential storm.
Resolution: I will contemplate the stories I hold about other species—or, likewise, a human person or group of people—that cast them as villains. I will dig into where my perspectives come from and shed those that prove to be erroneous or outdated.
The Chinese Zodiac suggests that while snake people may be seductive and slightly dangerous, at the same time they are intelligent, wise, and the most intuitive of all personalities.
Shaking Off Fear
Although statistics vary, somewhere around 50 percent of humans are afraid of snakes, and 2–5 percent of people qualify for a diagnosis of ophidiophobia (extreme fear).
Some psychologists suggest that we learn to fear snakes through our own experiences. On the other hand, some propose a “biology of fear” that humans pass down genetically. But, then, how do we account for the humans who adore snakes? Some researchers suggest we’re conditioned in childhood to fear others—snakes, spiders, and humans, too—by the people around us and the stories our cultures tell.
Consider this: Of the 3,000 species of snakes on earth, only six percent have the capacity for significantly injuring or killing a human. For you readers who remain concerned, Dr. Steve Johnson from the University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation assures us we’re nine times more likely to die from a lightning strike than from the bite of a venomous snake.
Of course, it’s important to be smart, such as wearing thick boots and staying on trails when hiking or being careful when reaching into a firewood pile outside our home. And yet, in general, our fear of snakes is wildly out of proportion with the reality of the risk. What’s more, human fearfulness leads to the widespread killing of snakes because of the perceived potential for conflict—not because of any behavior they have actually taken. Think about this for a second. That’s like killing a dog who has never bitten because she might bite. Or putting a cat “to sleep” because he might scratch—or offing a human because they might injure us in a car accident.
Resolution: I will evaluate my fears. I will seek out more about what I am afraid of. While remaining cautious about the safety of myself and those around me, I will shed any fearful assumptions that prove to be untrue or out of proportion.
Dropping Toxic Language
We extend our fear and unfair judgments through language, too. We might call someone a snake to mean they are untrustworthy or sneaky. Our reductionism suggests a single attribute for a whole host of unique beings just trying to live their own purposeful lives here on earth. Sadly, we do this a great deal. He’s a rat! She’s a pig! What, are you chicken?
Resolution: I will shed language that is unkind towards other beings. I will say what I mean, using clear communication rather than unfairly using animals—or humans—as insults.
Sloughing Our Skins
Although we may not be able to shed our physical skin in its entirety, we do shed millions of skin cells a day. Cleaning and brushing, then nourishing our skin with wholesome natural (and animal-free!) products not only feels good but is essential self-care. Likewise, being diligent about sunscreen can help ensure we see more new years in the future.
Resolution: I will care for my skin with love and acceptance—every scar, spot, and wrinkle, too—grateful for the protection it gives me and the sensations it helps me feel. I will be mindful about what I apply to my skin. I will help nourish the skin of others, too, dropping off lotion at domestic violence and homeless shelters near me. And I’ll commit to grooming my companion animals regularly so that their skin can thrive as well.
How we view other creatures and the stories we tell about them matters. New Year’s advice often encourages us to focus on the best possible version of me. By shedding stories, fears, and words that cause us to unfairly other those around us, perhaps we can help the earth community become the optimal expression of what it means to be a we.