Snake Psychoanalysis

Yesterday I launched myself in one of these completely insane plans I use for resetting my values just right, that is most humanly. I went half running, half walking up a low angle mountain, to reach a ridge above the grand canyon of the Mokelumne river. Then the plan was to go east towards another mountain along said ridge, and then down a three mile trail (which I had inaugurated before it was a trail, long ago).

At some point the trail I was on veered full west, but I was going north, where the ridge was. Tired and impatient, I decided to aim at the ridge, cross country. Of these sorts of decisions, the best wildlife encounters are made. Once I met an entire bear family, observing the fact that the pseudo-scientific lore that the bear dad was not staying with bear mom was blatantly false. It became even more interesting when the cubs decided to enquire about the strange ape, and mom barked out orders to all concerned. I was not proud for all too long. That was five miles from the closest trail, another stroke of genius.

So, in my latest ill-conceived plan, I was going up a south facing volcanic slope with a few giant cedar trees, with red fibrous fuzzy bark some probably more than a millennium old, three meters across at the base. There was significant underbrush, in full sun. The ground was black volcanic material. Just the sort of terrain snakes like. Not too cold in winter and the understory, thick in places, provides shade from too much sun. I had my guard down, because I was at 8,000 feet, and I was more worried about the direction of my undertaking, cross country. Suddenly I became aware of a sound, the sound of scales brushing scales, my automatic system said, while motion was detected. This is the sort of interesting situations when part of the brain goes into very slow time. The advantage of slow time is that there is plenty of time for automatized part of the brain for taking decisions. The rest of the brain is like a spectator at the movies, disconnected from all irrelevant sensory information. I had become a optical information processing machine. Brain automatisms focused left less than 4 feet away, trying to comprehend the origin of motion.

A full stop to forward body motion had been ordered. Meanwhile the first analysis came back completely blank: never seen anything like that. Seemed big. Then meta alert systems screamed snake, probably from the fact that motion going one way and the opposite had been detected, while automatic visual analysis made another pass, trying to understand the strange happenings, now in the context of (pacific) snakes. I had no encounter with venomous snake recently, so that’s why i was not panicking.

It was a fascinating flow of occurrences in a potentially disastrous context. In the new snake context my neurology had embraced, this tangle of uniformly grey curves seemed to be an enormous specimen of California Boa (which are found at this altitude, even perched in trees, as I saw at least once; they are olive grey and uniform in color, as I was observing; other snakes have patterns and colors).

So, perfectly cool, because boas, however enormous, are cool, I looked better, and came back with a strikingly black picture, oriented away from me, way out of the dynamically entangling snake’s body: it was long and straight and looked exactly like a fer de lance, the tip of a lance, the last foot and a half of a lance, with an impressive triangular head. I knew what it was, but still couldn’t believe it. RATTLESNAKE! Weirdly, because I was so out of the context of “rattlesnake”, having just been into boas, I didn’t get the adrenalin rush.

Huge Olive grey rattlesnake, Black, Bear Mountain August 2020, 8,000 feet. Picture is fuzzy, but one can see clearly part of the gigantic rattle. I could have taken better pictures, but I didn’t want the situation to degenerate, which could have disastrous consequences for all concerned. Lucky stars shouldn’t be taunted. The snake had sheltered in place, firmly indicated that his black life mattered, and further disturbing of the peace was ill-advised…

I went around the bush at the bottom of the big tree. The snake, a potential escape route blocked, had stopped and SHELTERED IN PLACE, at the foot of the large tree trunk, hidden by a bush.

After getting the camera out, I pondered the alternatives, which were numerous. First I had to thank my lucky star. This had been very close: my face was easily within striking distance of the long creature. Had it decided to attack, and inject venom, instead of retreating, I would have died, just there. And venomous snakes know they are dangerous, and can be extremely aggressive. Some individual snakes are prudent as snakes are supposed to be, and here was apparently one. It was not its fault if it didn’t feel me come, the soil was volcanic sand, so vibrations don’t go far…  And it was trying to go away, its head was as away from me as it was trying to find a place to hide.

Second, I could make tests on animal intelligence. Snakes are one of preferred objects of study. Although I didn’t meet a viper recently, I have met plenty over the years, and I fear them intensely. Although the snake did not initially seem aggressive, I take myself for god, in the matter of snakes, and I practice snake psychoanalysis, according to the highest ethical principles. I don’t kill non venomous snakes. 

Venomous snakes are another matter. Even if they don’t kill you, they can maim you for life. There are two types of venomous snakes, according to me: good guys and bad guys. In Europe, vipers are protected. Still, bad guys die under my jurisdiction. A bad snake is an attacking snake. Now, once in Senegal I saw a Black Mamba. It fled, faster than I could run. One Black Mamba rearing a meter high, will stop a buffalo herd. Lions will not. At that time I was just a child, and not into reptilian psychoanalysis. What did that snake knew which i didn’t?

Another time, in the Grisons, the Swiss Alps, still a child, but an older, more combative sort of child, I was charged, on a trail I was ascending, by a viper. I had no idea why the hissing creature charged down, nor did I have time to ponder the situation. The stone flew instinctively and the viper died instantaneously… In the past, the Alps were full of vipers. Because idiotic humans had killed all the birds who prey on them. Now the birds are back, and the vipers have become very rare. 


I am not going to tell all my snakes stories here, that would take a book. A memorable one was in Verdon, a deep gorge in France where climbing is practiced. We were 300 meters up, and my partner above had stopped. Suddenly he screamed: VIPER! I looked up and saw a strange sight: a snake, flying in the air!  The viper was undulating in such a way it had achieved some form of lift. Very recent studies have shown that, indeed, just as all snakes can swim, some can fly. They flatten their bodies and become flying bodies. My partner had got to the end of the rope, where the belay was. It was a very narrow ledge, barely the width of a hand, he had to stop and the venomous legless one threatened him, before deciding to take flight. How it found itself on that mini ledge, at the bottom of a chimney with very smooth walls which I led next, was extremely baffling.

It reminded me of my grandfather mantling on a ledge, also at the end of his rope, and finding a viper on the same ledge. Or my spouse, following the pitch I had just led, on a huge 2,000 feet high rock climb in Ailefroide, confronted by a three foot long black viper. 

That Bear Mountain rattlesnake was dark grey, exactly the color of the ground in the area, and of the treebark it was lodged along. No patterns. I had never seen the description of such a snake, and I believe it’s a new subspecies. The closest black rattlesnake is an endangered species in Arizona, 1,000 kilometers away. But it was a rattlesnake alright, it was brandishing above itself an impressive six inches (15 cm) rattle, purple and white.

To ascertain the character of the astonishing creature, I delicately threw its way, light pieces of bark. It hissed mightily after each impact in its vicinity, but did not rattle. Nor did it charge out. Its message was clearly: I will defend myself, but I am not going to attack. It was definitely a good guy, and I stopped bothering it. We had met by happenstance. It could have killed me, but it let me live, and the least I could do, was to do the same. I also suspect it’s a new subspecies, or at least certainly a special breed. 

That Black Life mattered and was allowed to proceed.

But I will have to remind myself never to go across that particular stretch, and in the three cross country episodes which followed the preceding in the next two hours, I was much more careful in aiming for open ground. 


For “animal lovers”, let me explain a bit more: my main relaxation is to go through wild areas, for example mountain ranges. OK, the word “relaxation” may seem strange, as much of the usually unused part of the brain have to be on high alert… But the rest of the brain can relax. In the sea, in Africa, I used to swim with harpoon and a huge serrated combat knife on the leg. Being so equipped is reassuring when next to the greatest white shark you have ever seen (another story). In the wild ranges, when I feel in danger, I carry stones. Once I was charged by a Black Bear, in Yosemite Back Country, and I threw a hefty stone at him. Usually, when confronted by aggressive bears, I throw stones at trees, and that’s enough to make them go away: bears know and fear stones, if you are master of stones, you are master of something they fear, and they flee. But that particular bear had attacked a whole caravan of backcountry hikers earlier, and made a good meal from their backpacks. And I was carrying chickens (for a BBQ with family and friends, ten miles from the road). Chicken dinner made Mr. Bear nuts with desire, and he charged. Until he met with my stone. Thereafter he fled for his life. Three weeks later, rangers tracked it down, and killed it. It had grievously injured a grandmother. 

Good wild animals, even snakes, generally respect humans. Bad ones… well, except if extremely endangered species, they should die. This is implicitly the policy set in place in California. Authorities kill bad bears, bad coyotes, and bad mountain lions. Only thus can these dangerous animals be allowed to live in proximity to humans, because only good animals fostering good animal culture are allowed to live.

The case of rattlesnakes is striking. Although there is no such a thing as rattlesnake culture, there are definitively varying rattlesnake mentalities. Most are pacific, but some are not. Twice I met rattlers barring my way. Once it was on a fireroad, but the snake was seven feet long, or so. The other time, the night was coming, and the path was very narrow, and Mr. Snake, blocking my way, was determined to fight. The first snake had to be hit by stones twice before it made way, the second kept on fighting until it was dead. That was clearly a dangerous snake, and it could have killed somebody. In the Berkeley hills, once, in the 1970s, a single rattlesnake killed two young men. Like me, they had been on a slope… And there the hospital is a few miles away…       

What does this all mean? Once I met a gentleman with his pet gopher snake around his neck, a full six feet long. He had found it once in his garden while small. What is striking is that, if you meet a gopher in the wild, it will flee at great speed. Cornered it will try to bite, and make pungy excrements. But there this ex-wild snake was perfectly tame. my five year old daughter played with it. Gopher snake’s brains are peanut sized. Still, high performance. Why? Because they are Quantum Computers. They are all we are, just on much reduced scale: consciousness, and even conscientiousness,  a picture of what the world should be. That large rattler I met survived all sorts of predators, probably by being conscientious about not being over aggressive and over confident. Earlier, I had seen two large Golden Eagles hunting. If they had seen that snake in the open, it was dead. But, for decades, they didn’t see that snake in the open, or then if they did see it, it sheltered in place in such a way that eagles would be discouraged in attacking… which was certainly the case I witnessed.

Survival of the fittest. Meanwhile I am going to think twice before going cross country with underbrush, two hours from road and cell coverage…

Patrice Ayme   


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5 Responses to “Snake Psychoanalysis”

  1. Paul Handover Says:

    What a story! Wow!


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks for liking it, Paul. Not exactly happenstance, as I am clearly risking trouble… Today I swam across (part of) an Alpine lake where I nearly drowned in like eight years ago…


  2. G max Says:

    You are something else entirely. Can’t you just stay safe. Like normal people? No, really


  3. Patrice Ayme Says:

    The pandemic shows herds are bad. But in the matter of thinking, they are fatal. I enjoy studying ants, and how they think. Wasps too, and even rattlesnakes. Thus I learn, including how important hatred and the herd are important to the commons:


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