When the American colonialists united to say a decisive “No!” to British rule, they flew several flags under and around Old Glory. Anchors. Eagles. Minutemen standing over the banner “Give me liberty, or give me death.”
But the revolutionary flag that compels me most is the one with the rattlesnake. On one version of the flag, the snake is coiled, ready to strike. On another version, the snake is stretched out, as if sunning on a rock or preparing to boogie across the landscape.
Underneath the snake was an admonition. A fair and reasonable warning. It read: “Don’t tread on me!”
I was born and raised in Arizona, a state that has bragging rights for rattlesnakes. More species of rattlesnakes — 13, to be precise — call Arizona home than any other state. Arizona is truly the rattlesnake capital of the world.
So, I was taught from an early age to know my brother, the rattlesnake. I was taught to respect them. To appreciate them. Even to cherish them. I have camped with rattlesnakes. Hiked with them. Probably slept with or nearer to them than I wished.
I confess loathing and sadness for folks (almost always men) who seem to think it’s cosmic law that all rattlesnakes must be killed on sight. Like God issued a standing kill order. Just because it’s there and you saw it.
The good news is this: With the exception of the rare accident, it is actually very, very easy not to get bitten by a rattlesnake. Ridiculously easy. Don’t jog through desert scrub. Keep your eyes on the trail, especially in the early morning when the cold-blooded animals are sunning. When climbing an incline hand over hand, never place your hand on ledges where your eyes cannot first see. Likewise never step over logs and rocks where you cannot see. Practice caution around any pile of debris, where snakes hide from the heat of day.
Rattlesnakes have zero interest in you. And with the sometimes exception of the Mohave rattlesnake, these snakes aren’t aggressive. More shy and retiring. Venom is a precious commodity. Trust me when I say that rattlesnakes have no interest whatsoever in wasting venom just to remind you that you are some combination of stupid and disrespectful.
But they will remind you. If you absolutely insist on it.
Still, you have to admire the rattlesnake for its gracious “fair warning.” The sound is so distinctive. As distinctive as the sound of a 12-gauge pump shotgun being pumped. And it evokes exactly the same reaction. You freeze. Your blood runs cold. You suddenly become very alert and extremely well-mannered. Your attitude says, “My bad … pardon me,” as you gingerly make your self-deprecating exit.
I once attended a Gestalt weekend. Yes, just what you’re thinking. Lots of group therapy. Lots of emotional process. But it was the “totem guided fantasy” exercise that I will always remember.
The leader talked us through a meditative fantasy wherein the participants each encountered an animal, provided by the unconscious. Then we were asked to describe the animal.
I “saw” a huge, diamondback rattler, sunning himself on a desert rock. “He’s beautiful,” I said, with deep appreciation. “Powerful.”
“Is he friendly? Unfriendly? Dangerous?” the leader asked me.
“Oh, quite friendly. Wise, even. But …” I paused. I remember feeling sober. Thoughtful. “But, don’t handle him,” I said. “He doesn’t like to be handled. You absolutely have to respect him. That’s the rule.”
“What will happen if you handle him?” the leader asked.
“Oh, you won’t like it,” I said, smiling with admiration for this animal. “It’s fast. It’s quick. It’s hypodermic. Surgical. And it will ruin your day.”
After everyone had shared, the leader gave us the punch line. Oh my. We’d been talking about ourselves, via totem animal energy.
Back then, in my 20s, I was astonished and surprised and more than a little uncomfortable with my own capacity for aggression. Often in flat denial about it. My father hogged the aggression in my family, and I think my ego decided to pursue whatever illusion necessary to ensure myself that I could never be like him.
But, thankfully, illusions have a way of falling like houses of cards.
I know myself better today. I don’t like “being handled.” That is, managed. I despise being manipulated and maneuvered in service to protecting others’ fragile personas.
If possible, you’ll get fair warning. But, don’t tread on me. Because I bite.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.