“The father on a camping trip who manages to beat a rattlesnake to death with a can of Dinty Moore in a tube sock may rest for decades on the ensuing laurels yet somehow snore peacefully every night beside his sleepless wife, even though he knows perfectly well that the Polly Pocket toys may be tainted with lead-based paint, and the Rite-Aid was out of test kits, and somebody had better go order them online, overnight delivery, even though it is four in the morning.” -Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs
There are two kinds of danger: the rattlesnake who bumbles into camp, and the slow toxicity of the paint we use to color our lives. There’s the dramatic foe to fight against, and the quiet poison that can become our habit. As a society, I think we need to stop killing snakes so much.
We’re a culture of snake killing. We like it. We make movies about it. (No one ever saw ToxicPaint 3: New Formulae, but Anaconda had plenty of sequels). At one point in our history, that might have helped us–I read somewhere that humans are drawn to monster stories because, in our ancient communities, we needed to know what was out there with big teeth. That seems true for my own psychology: I don’t like monster movies, but if I see a trailer for one, I look up pictures until I can see the beast itself. I want to know what it looks like, as though, one day, it might sneak up on me in the wild–and I’ll have to know what to do.
Even if that was useful once, I don’t think it is anymore. I’ve spent some time in the wild–well, the largely depopulated mountains of California, anyway, where we killed our state bear. The wildest things I’ve seen are a black bear and a mountain lion. They both looked at me and walked away. I’ve done a lot of outdoor sports and martial arts, and the most serious health problem I’ve ever had is still the silly, entirely avoidable repetitive injury from how I sat in a chair. Sitting in that chair, I’ve heard about students who were cruelly hurt by another individual–but I’ve seen far more students who were hurt by the ‘everyday’ (as though they are acceptable) pressures of body image, “success,” competition, casual drug use, and conformity. When you look around, I bet you find a few loud dangers. Beneath them, I bet you find lead paint on many walls. And I bet it’s the dramatic, flashy dangers–the snakes–that get talked about the most.
I don’t think our culture’s grown this way because there are so many snakes. I think it’s because the snake killers have been in charge, and that’s what they’re good at. They like the fighting part. It’s what they know how to do. Doing it makes them look good, it makes them feel good. It makes us feel good. In a way, it’s easy–not easy to win, but easy to know what you’re supposed to do. We like having our hands on the wheel, we like going fast, feeling the wind. We don’t like thinking about how many people die as part of our transportation system. That’s a harder problem to address, and addressing it doesn’t look “heroic.”
I once when swimming in a little lake in India–and half an hour in, I noticed there were several snakes swimming nearby.
“Are those snakes?” I asked an old man who’d come to the water with me. I was ready to go get my tube sock.
“Yes,” he said.
“Are they poisonous?”
“Should…should we get out of the water?”
“Why? They’re swimming here. And we’re swimming here.”
No one get bit. Apparently he’d been swimming there for fifty years, and no one had ever gotten bit. Later that day, the same man talked to me about a nearby village: they’d gotten a new well, so there was more water, but that meant everyone was using more water. It was a farming community so everyone was planting more crops. But crops need water today and tomorrow. If they didn’t work out an agreement, there would soon be a worse water shortage than before.
That worried him. Not the snakes.