Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More


Snake

Solano Avenue, Yountville, California, USA

June 14, 2004



This essay, Snake, is the first in the quadrilogy Snake: It is also the first in the septology Menagerie:

When I ride my bicycle through the Napa Valley vineyards (my commitment is to do so twice daily, morning and evening, twenty miles each ride), the secondary benefit is physical fitness. My experience isn't "I am riding my bicycle". Nor is it "This is an exceptionally beautiful valley to ride in". Rather, there is ... just ... riding ...  In this experience, the bicycle, the exceptionally beautiful scenery, and the movement are all one seamless space in which I barely appear. There is ... just ... riding ...  Into this space come some of my best works. It's as if they just pop into that space, whole and completely formed, grab me by the throat, and demand "Write me!".

I never take notes. Once a work comes to me, I may only write it down three weeks later, yet when I do, all the original details come back - as crisp and as accurate as when they first appeared. The primary benefit of riding isn't getting the specific points, details, and exact words for what I'm going to write. Rather, it's in this space of ... just ... riding ... I get the abstract form, shape, and direction for what I'm going to write. Three weeks later (or whenever I do write it down), the specific points, details, and exact words may no longer be there. However, what's still there, and what doesn't go away once it has come to me is the abstract form, shape, and direction for what I'm going to write. The specific points, details, and exact words come right back (as if they weren't forgotten but only temporarily hidden) once I start expressing the abstract form, shape, and direction I got earlier while ... just ... riding ...

That's the context for one very hot summer day as I was halfway through my evening ride. Up ahead of me on the side of the road which follows the east side of a one hundred acre vineyard, I saw what looked like a discarded offcut of vineyard hosepipe. At first, I didn't pay much attention to it. Then, as I got closer, I had another thought: that it wasn't an offcut of hosepipe after all, but was rather a piece of thick rope. And still I didn't pay much attention to it. Only when I was about ten feet away from it did I realize it was a large snake which was about to crawl onto and across the road, and if he did crawl onto the road, he would surely be killed by a passing car. I dismounted from my bicycle, a healthy distance from the snake.

Something very visceral and primal caused the hair on the back of my neck to rise up. I was immediately afraid of that snake, yet he hadn't done anything to threaten me. I had two conflicting drives at that moment: one, to save the snake; the other, to save myself.

Not wanting to handle the snake, and yet not knowing what to do to stop him from crawling onto the road, I gingerly pushed my bicycle so that its front wheel stopped in front of the snake's head, preventing him from going any further and getting onto the road. And there we were, in a stalemate: me, panic stricken, holding my bicycle by the saddle, standing as far back as I possibly could, preventing the snake from getting onto the road, and the snake, casually lying still, flicking his tongue in and out, tasting my bicycle's front tire (or was he smelling? don't snakes smell with their tongues?), not moving, not retreating, but now not attempting to cross the road either.

It suddenly occurred to me I had started something for which I had no idea how it would end. I was afraid of that snake. I didn't know how to deal with him. I didn't know if he was venomous or not. And yet it was clear to me I held his future - whether he lived or died - in my hands. And I had no notion of what to do next.

I thought of something: using my cellphone (which I always carry with me when I'm riding), I called the Yellow Pages operator and asked for telephone numbers for pet shops and vivariums in Napa. Perhaps I could locate someone who would know what to do and who would tell me what to do. There were a few wrong numbers, and the ones which rang had voice messages saying the businesses were closed for the day. Frustrated, I called the operator again, this time asking for telephone numbers for animal hospitals in Napa. I got through to the guy at the answering service for one of them. The hospital, he told me, was closed, so I asked him if he could refer me to a snake expert. He couldn't, and he asked me if I had a hurt snake. I told him no, but I might have one soon if I couldn't contact a snake expert!

Then I called the Napa Police, the best idea I'd had all evening so far. I told the dispatch sergeant about the situation. She listened intently, then with a smile in her voice, said: "Now I really HAVE heard everything!". She told me to hang up, and she said she'd have an animal control officer call me back.

The snake was still flicking his tongue at my front tire, not attempting to go around it. He was truly a beautiful creature. In spite of the deeply subconscious fear which coursed through me as I watched him, I realized I was now committed to him, even without knowing how the saga was going to end, or how long it was going to take. I realized I would be there for him for as long as it took.

When my cellphone rang about ten minutes later, I was almost surprised, shaken out of my reverie. Totally focused on the snake, I'd forgotten the animal control officer was going to call. He asked what kind of snake it was. I told him I knew very little about snakes. I described the snake's markings. He told me it sounds like a rattlesnake. He said it could be dangerous ("Thanks very much!" I swallowed, hoarse ...). I asked him if I should try to move the snake, and the more I asked the question the more my stomach tightened into a tiny ball. He said he could come by in about an hour if I would care to wait for him.

Clearly, I had a choice. I could wait for the animal control officer for an hour - just me and the snake waiting at the side of a road on the edge of the vineyard - or I could simply ride away. Invariably, the snake would then cross the road and be killed by a passing car. No, I didn't have a choice after all. Or I did  have a choice: to stay or to stay!  Chocolate or chocolate: choose!

The animal control officer asked if I'd touched the snake. I hadn't, but since the snake seemed so calm and relaxed, I carefully reached out and touched his tail. He coiled up and raised his head, and I didn't have to be the Crocodile Hunter to figure out he was hostile. And again, that primal rush of adrenalin pumped through my veins. The fear he invoked in me by doing nothing at all, just by being a snake, fascinated me. "Laurence, you ARE on automatic!", I said to myself wryly.

I asked the animal control officer if he had any other good ideas! He said I could find a long stick and try to move the snake with it. ("Yeah! A really REALLY long stick!" I thought ...). I told him I'd go and look for a stick, then call him back.

Leaving my bicycle at the side of the road in front of the snake, I went looking for a long stick. I didn't find a long stick, but I did find the next best thing: a six foot length of sturdy wire, discarded there, no doubt, from some erstwhile vineyard project. And then I had an original, creative idea. I bent one of the ends of the wire into a noose and, standing as far from the snake as possible, I slipped the noose over his head. Surprisingly, he allowed me to. Did he know my intention was to protect him? Was he allowing  me to save him from being killed?

Now almost squinting with fear yet realizing I had no other choice, I lifted the snake up in the noose. He immediately fell out and onto the side of the road again. My breath was heaving. I tightened the noose somewhat, then slipped it over his head again. Again he allowed me to. This time I got the noose about a foot down onto his body.

And then - as if a stick of dynamite had exploded behind me - I burst into a run. I ran and I ran as hard as I could with that snake on that wire into that vineyard. The snake seemed to coil tighter around the wire and did not attempt to uncoil himself. Was he ... holding on? I ran and I ran and I ran away from the road, deeper and deeper into the vineyard, wanting to get that snake away from the road and back to a safe place, and I wanted to get him there fast and leave him there before he changed his mind and bit me. My breath was coming in gasping sobs. I ran, ducking under overhanging vine canes, some smacking me in the face, stinging. When I was about a half mile into the vineyard, I stopped and put down the wire and the snake.

The snake, ever so casually, uncoiled himself from the wire, crawled away from it, turned around, and looked at me. Then ... in the depths of my being, in the very center of my soul ... I heard  that snake say to me Goodbye, and Thank You!

I could almost not believe what I'd just heard, and yet I immediately responded - out loud and in English: "No. Thank YOU! Thank You for allowing me the privilege serving you. I apologize to you for being afraid of you. I Love You.". The snake flicked his tongue at me, then turned and slowly slithered away, raising puffs of dust from the bone dry dirt on the vineyard floor, then disappeared behind the chardonnay vines.

It was then I realized exactly how out of breath I was. I sat down, hard, on the ground, heaving in oxygen, my head between my knees. After catching my breath, I began a slow walk the half mile back to the road, wondering if someone had stolen my bicycle.

No one had. It was still there, lying exactly where I'd left it at the side of the road. I called the animal control officer on my cellphone and told him what had happened. I thanked him for coaching me. I told him I considered what had just occurred - that extraordinary encounter with the snake - to be a total and absolute privilege. He was silent for a long time, and then that animal control officer said to me: "No one ever gets it like that. Thank You for sharing that with me.".

I got back on my bicycle and started to ride home. The sun was setting. The evening air felt cool against my face.



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