It was a Saturday evening at the dim end of dusk, when there’s still light enough for a walk, but only barely. The wood thrushes had ended their daylong vows of silence and had begun chiming in the nighttime, their metallic plink-plink-plinks like bells tossed from the pines and sweet gums. Afternoon’s heavy heat had backed off, as if some obese aunt had finally let the world go from her sweaty hug. I had picked the blackberry canes clean and picked the blueberries as much as I could stand. (Mama always says you don’t so much finish picking blueberries this time of year as just give up.) “I’m going to take a short walk,” I said to my husband, Don, “and then I’m not doing anything else tonight.” He said he’d come along.
The dogs weren’t with us. We’d been out of town and had gotten back too late to pick them up from the kennel. Don for once was looking up and out at the road as we walked, instead of staring at the ground. “Look up!” I’m always telling him. “You’ll make yourself hunchbacked, and you miss what’s going on.” This time he had his eyes forward, and so did I, so we both missed the young timber rattler, an adolescent at best, that had come out onto the road to cool himself. He was the same color as the dirt and gravel, the same size as many of the sticks littering the ground. I didn’t notice him taking his ease there. I stepped on him in my sandals. He bit me.
“What was that?” I said. Not much of a reaction, but his bite had been quick and hadn’t hurt much: a sharp little slice, that’s all; the sort you’d feel if you nicked your finger with a kitchen knife. I thought I’d stepped on a piece of glass or metal. Then I twisted to look down behind me and saw him there with his small head raised, his spine still rigid from striking. My first thought was that the rattler seemed as surprised by what he’d done as I was. He was a young guy and probably didn’t yet realize that he’d come into this north-Georgia world equipped with poison-injecting equipment. Whoa. What the heck did I just do? That’s what he looked like he was thinking.
At this point in my story, listeners usually say, “Oh, you’re lucky he was a young one.” Actually, no. Mature pit vipers prefer to deliver a warning dose of venom, not their full load. Young ones haven’t yet learned to control the amount they inject, and thus they give their all. I got this teenager’s entire wad, direct into two neat slashes on my right instep. I sat down.
Venom travels through your circulatory system, burning blood-vessel walls like acid as it goes, so the slower you can get your blood to flow, the better. Knowing this, I did not try to walk to our car, just ten yards away. Don ran to the house for the cellphone and the car keys. He brought the car to me, then called 911 as he drove, asking the dispatcher to have an ambulance meet us at the Bethlehem Fire Department, where there would be emergency medical equipment. Then I called Mama to tell her what had happened.
No compassionate daughter enjoys horrifying her eighty-five-year-old mother with the news that she’s been bitten by a poisonous snake, and I am justified in feeling worse about it than most. I am Mama’s youngest child, the one she had almost given up hoping for. When she became pregnant with me, after a long period of infertility and miscarriages, her doctor offered her a new drug that was thought to prevent spontaneous abortions. “No, thanks,” Mama said. “I believe if a baby is meant to make it, it will. If I lose this one, it’s because there was a reason for it not to be born.” And in refusing DES, Mama saved me from a high risk of cervical cancer and other health problems that afflict many daughters of women who did accept that drug with loving intentions. I showed my gratitude by weighing almost ten pounds at birth and ripping Mama “from stem to stern,” in her words: sixty-seven stitches’ worth. Despite my robust size, I was born with a faulty valve in my heart and a deficient immune system. Mama has often told me how, in my first year, I had croup that turned to pneumonia. She and all the church ladies in Jeffersonville, Georgia, kept me alive by spooning sugar water into me every five minutes, day and night. By the time I’d made it to age three, I was a veteran patient of Emory University Hospital’s cardiac clinic, willing to sit still on a gurney while long lines of interns listened to my heart.
But the triumphal moment in my accidental campaign to turn Mama’s hair from Irish red to worry white came at the end of my fourteenth year, when I caught myself on fire. I was kept from burning to death by Mama, who grabbed hold of me — a five-foot-eight-inch torch running toward her that February night in Savannah — and killed the flames with towels and the skin of her own hands.
Now here I was causing her grief yet again. I felt like the rattler, bringing harm when all I’d intended was to enjoy the cool air of a late-June evening. As Don sped me toward help, I propped my foot on the dash like a teenage girl with new nail polish and a toe ring to show off. And show off is what I did once I got to the fire station. The firemen sat me down and questioned me about what the snake had looked like and how many minutes it had been since I’d been bitten. They were impressed that I knew it was a timber rattler and that I had noticed how many rattles it had (two). I could tell they had to stop themselves from saying, “Oh, cool!” when they looked at the fang marks. I wouldn’t have cared. The bite did look cool, in a Stephen King sort of way. Over the next week or two I’d take what pleasure I could in showing off my slashes.
The ambulance got to the fire station in less than five minutes, and the crew loaded me into the vehicle for the second ambulance ride of my life. At the time of my first ride, I was only fourteen and roasted black from neck to ankles, but I can remember asking the attendant if he would mind, please, taking one of the pink plastic curlers out of my hair, because it was digging into my scalp. I was ashamed that I had to ask him to do this girly job, and I felt embarrassed and uncomfortably in his debt. This time, I joked with the big, friendly EMT who was icing down my leg and checking my vitals. He joked back, “I hope you don’t think I’m going to lean over and suck the venom out of your foot.” It was the best thing he could have said. My family has always used this sort of gentle, put-you-in-your-place humor to defuse scary situations. It gives you a sense of perspective, which is the first thing we lose in any emergency.
In the hospital emergency room I kept my full bladder to myself as long as I could, not wanting to trouble anyone. When I had to ask the nurse for some way to go, she laughed and said, “If I’d been bitten by a rattlesnake, I would already have peed. I can’t believe you weren’t scared.”
It’s true, I wasn’t scared when it happened. I was purposeful. I knew bad things were going to come of that moment, and I needed to work my hardest to minimize their number and intensity. I didn’t get scared until a doctor came to talk to me about the antivenom.
Despite my wilderness-survival training, I’d always believed that antivenom worked the way it did on TV: the snakebite victim gets wheeled into the emergency room, someone grabs a hypodermic full of serum, and another life is saved. No problem. But there is a problem, this kind doctor explained: The antivenom has to be given in a series of shots — as few as ten and as many as fifteen — and a high percentage of patients experience an allergic reaction with symptoms ranging from a rash to death. Also, there is only a six-hour window of effectiveness. As the doctor talked, the hospital lab techs were at work mixing the antivenom, and now I had to decide whether to allow it, and possibly die, or not allow it, and possibly die.
I told him I needed a little time. First I wanted to try to think the venom into slowing its path of destruction through biofeedback. The doctor was pleased. Next I turned down the shot of synthetic morphine a nurse brought in, despite the pain now rocketing off the one-to-ten scale posted on the wall, because I wanted to be able to listen to my body.
Here’s where I need to pause and praise my parents for teaching me that body and mind are a unit, a pair, a married couple, lovers. Anyone who has been in a long relationship can tell you that communication keeps the bond alive and, more important, growing. The most essential part of communication is not the ability to talk, but the ability to listen. Mama’s a genius at hearing what her body’s trying to tell her, but Daddy took it to a professional level. A United Methodist minister, he earned two master’s degrees: one in divinity and one in psychological counseling. When counseling his parishioners, he often taught them to use visualization and biofeedback as means to conquer addictions. He used visualization himself to defeat pain, refusing Novocain from dentists, for instance. “Give me a minute,” he’d tell them, and he would then look into his own body and visualize the nerve endings being silenced. When I was in my twenties, I used the same method to banish the migraines that had been plaguing me. I have never, however, been bold enough to use biofeedback to entertain myself during long hospital stays, as Daddy was known to do: while hooked to a blood-pressure machine being monitored at the nurses’ station, he would will his blood pressure to skyrocket, then will it back to normal as soon as he heard a nurse running for his room.
It is this idea of listening to what your body wants to tell you, rather than rushing to shut up any sounds from inside, that most often puts me at odds with the medical profession. (It’s also one of a long list of factors causing some people to think of me as eccentric. Even my hairdresser, Vikki, who is quite fond of me, once said, “If I saw a newspaper headline ‘Woman Attacked by Mountain Lion,’ I’d assume it was you.”) But that wise emergency-room doctor was willing to give me time to listen to what my body had to say, and later, after I’d been admitted, a night nurse and I talked about her fight with her gynecologist. “He wants to give me hormones for perimenopause,” she said. “I keep telling him that menopause and hot flashes are all part of a natural process. It’s what my body is supposed to be doing right now. It’s normal.” So, too, is pain after a poisonous snake bites you. The first stage of a snakebite is a process of destruction, and I needed to hear what the extent of the damage was. Later, after the destruction had been halted as much as possible and the recovery process had begun, pain would become less informative, and only then would I be able to afford the luxury of painkillers.
At about one o’clock in the morning, toward the end of my six-hour window in which to take the antivenom, something changed, and I could tell the poison was no longer progressing up my leg. The hard jerking in the muscles had eased off a bit, and the red pain had faded to a paler color. I knew, just as surely as if some digital readout had indicated it, that I would not get any worse. I told the doctor we’d not be using the antivenom, thanks just the same. He was relieved. I was too.
Then the hard part started. My veins were still full of poison that was eating away at my blood vessels, causing them to hemorrhage and leak, allowing the venom to infiltrate my tissues. Over the course of the next week, my foot turned black, and my leg turned intense shades of purple, orange, and yellow. Swelling began around the bite area and spread until I had no visible arch in my foot, then no visible ankle, and finally no visible knee. My right leg grew to twice the size of my left. (It was a good thing this happened in summer, because I could not wear a single pair of long pants or shoes.) Standing up became an exercise in agony as blood invaded my poor, abused vessels, which screamed in protest. I tell you this to engender not pity but understanding. Time and again since I was bitten, I’ve found people are surprised to learn that I was still in pain a week or two weeks after it happened. They don’t realize that poison destroys the parts of the body it invades, and though the damage is fixable, the fix is a long time coming.
Such denial of long-term consequences is all too common in our culture. As an activist for the environmental health of northern Georgia, I talk with many people — smart people, good people — who can see no connection between the water they use in their kitchens and the water that flows in my creek. It’s almost as if they viewed nature as a Third World country: they know it exists, but they wouldn’t go there, because it’s not safe or clean. I’ve had many people ask if I’m going to stop walking in the woods now, the same way they might assume that if I’d been robbed in Somalia, I would never go back. And because they don’t know the woods in the familiar way they know their computer or their car, they have a hard time connecting the health of our environment with the way they live their lives. This whole episode with the snakebite has turned me into a human example of what one quick dumping of poison can do to arteries — my own arteries, or those of our Southern waterways.
I have also had people ask if I now wear boots when I take my every-other-morning walk. And do I carry a gun? “Do you wear boots when you go for a walk?” I ask them. “Do you carry a gun when you weed your tomatoes?” When I told a woman I know that I’d spent all Saturday working in my garden, she asked me, “Did you wear waders?” I told her no, I’d worn sandals, same as always, to which she replied, “Some people never learn.”
I don’t want to believe people are intentionally unkind, so I’ve tried to figure out what makes so many of them determined to blame me for having been bitten. I’ve come to the conclusion that they brand me as stupid or irresponsible to reassure themselves that what happened to me will never happen to them. She’s an old hippie who does oddball things, and I’m not, their subconscious murmurs. Therefore no snake will ever bite me.
And maybe they have a point. I do take risks that many Americans choose not to take. And the more I expand my horizons, the more I allow for potential mishaps. But I don’t consider this a foolhardy way to live; I consider this the only way to live. I will not armor myself against nature. If I shut out parts of the natural world that might hurt me, I would become as vacuum-sealed as all those houses whose blinds are never raised, whose windows are never opened, whose central heat and air is never turned off. I want to be as ever-changing as the wilderness, with its attendant risks, and if I die, I die.
Which brings me to the other side of the coin: those dear souls who point out the positive when they talk about the snakebite. My family doctor told me he was grateful for my stunning good health because it pulled me through what would have killed or maimed many others. A retired-dentist friend stopped me months after the incident to say, “You know, it’s only because you knew exactly what to do after you were bitten that you survived.”
Even such moments of praise, though, come tinged with a shade of wonder. Life’s dark side took a nip out of me, and I survived. Why?
It’s a question I’ve faced a number of times in my life. First there was the pneumonia that almost took me at six months. Then, at age ten, while Emory doctors were examining my heart to see exactly what the problem with it was, I lay on the catheterization table and watched the heart monitor flat-line. I remember knowing it was significant but not feeling concerned about it.
Four years later, on a cold February night in Savannah, I stood reading in front of the parsonage fireplace, my open book resting on the mantel. A volley of sparks suddenly sprayed from the logs and burrowed into the flannel of my floor-length nightgown. The flame grew like a live thing and crawled up my left side, reaching for my hands and face. I fell to the carpet and rolled in the manner every schoolchild is taught, but when I stood up, the flame roared back to life, wrapped me in its wings, and began to dissolve me.
This is what burning is like: not a cooking, but a wet scrubbing-off of clothes and flesh. I was screaming, but I heard nothing. I moved through the dining room in awkward slow motion, flames draping me like a birth caul. Mama ran from the bath she’d been taking and swaddled me with wet towels.
Somehow I knew I would not die. Dying was not even the worst possibility — survival was. I sat on the old wood floor in front of the bathroom door, waiting for the ambulance, staring down at my roasted hands. I kept saying to Mama, “I’ve ruined my hands. I’ve ruined my hands.” I was fourteen years old.
Why did I survive? Countless people have suggested I did not die because God had a plan for me. But if God kept me alive in order that I might live out his plan, wouldn’t this imply that it was also God who had brought me so near to death? Had God set a young girl on fire just so he could snatch her back from the brink at the last moment, slightly charred around the edges? Talk about dark comedy. Personally, I don’t hold much truck with a God who niggles away his days making things happen or not happen. That sounds to me like a small-minded, control-freak God. That sounds to me an awful lot like taking someone’s idea of human nature and calling it “God.”
I think it matters not one hoot why a particular calamity happens to me, or to you, or to any of us. What matters is how we deal with it. Musings about fate could not put skin back on my body. Healing from being burned is hard work. I didn’t have the energy for anything else.
When that rattlesnake bit me this past summer, I did not sit on the side of Harry McCarty Road moaning, “Oh, why would God let this happen to me?” Nor was my first thought to kill the snake. That was not even my second or third or fortieth thought. I did not kill that snake; nor did I hunt down and exterminate his cousins in a blood feud. A man who knew about my snakebite told me he had set out to destroy the entire snake population on his several wooded acres. He seemed to think I might see this as a worthy endeavor. But where does such an approach stop? Should we also kill all spiders, in order that not one brown recluse live? Should we cut down all trees in anticipation that one rogue limb might break off and bean someone in the head?
In my writing I have been primarily a poet, because my natural predilection is to notice what’s small, what’s close, what’s personal. I think of novelists as the CEOs of the writing world. I picture them standing on top of Plot Mountain, surveying complex vistas below and planning how to describe the view. Poets are down there in the valley’s remotest holler, cooling our feet in a tiny bend of the narrowest creek, thinking how nice the water feels. We look up, notice all those hot people in a field nearby, and call to them, “Hey, it’s nice right here, in this spot.” And that’s where a poem starts.
My poet’s tendency to focus on the immediate has served me well when my survival was in question. Survival comes through awareness. I believe I survived the snakebite because I remained in the moment and tended to what needed to be done. I am not the sort of person to quote the Bible, but I’d hang my hat on “Be still and know that I am God”: Be still. Be aware. Let the big picture come to you, so you’ll know the right course of action. What more could any higher power ask of us than that we stop, listen, and then act to the best of our abilities?
Halfway up our big hill is an old oak that grows straight, as it should, for seven feet or so, then takes a sharp ninety-degree turn, growing parallel to the ground for a few feet, then heads for the heavens again. I call this our “signal oak,” after a legend I’ve heard of how local Native Americans once trained trees to grow pointing in a desired direction, like living signposts. My tree wasn’t yet an acorn when the last Cherokee left these low hills, so its sharp bend must be due to accident or climate. It could be that an older tree fell across its young trunk, warping it. The fallen tree eventually rotted away, allowing my signal oak to right itself.
I feel a kinship with this tree because I’ve felt death fling its weight across me now and again, and the best response I could think of was to bend a bit and hold steady until the load fell off. Is there a reason I have survived? Who knows? All that matters is that, like the signal oak, I adjusted my stance until I was able to straighten up again. Walking my woods, I see every tree, every sprig of jewelweed, every salamander, and, yes, every snake trying to hold on in a paved world, and I’m reminded exactly what hard work survival is.