The day the threat revealed itself, there was a small red-bellied black snake in the in-tray on my desk. I had caught a glimpse of a reptilian head ducking back under the papers (long overdue for filing) and assumed it a friendly gecko. I lifted the papers, chatting away, only to drop them and squeak when I saw the glossy black snarl of snake instead. Nike held the screen open, and I attempted to encourage him to slither up and out the window with a long stick. He refused to cooperate.
I contemplated grabbing the snake behind the head, the way I had seen my father do it dozens of times when I was a child, but could not. While a bite from a red-bellied black snake would not be fatal, particularly at that size, it would have required a trip Nambour Hospital’s Emergency section – a close second to death. It was late, and in the end, I was not brave enough to touch the snake. Instead, I picked up the entire in-tray and threw it outside.
It rained (again) overnight. I realised, as I lay awake listening to running water, that my PhD testamur was in the bottom of the upturned tray, and yet I didn’t go out to rescue it. The next morning, I tromped out in steel-capped boots and found no sign of the snake. My papers were strewn out in an uneven line, over wet grass. The testamur was fine.
Several days later, we walked down the steps into the studio bedroom and found another red-belly slithering across the floor. Smaller than the previous one. We attempted to shepherd (snakeherd?) it outside through open louvers, with no success. Eventually, it S-bended itself into the corner of our wardrobe, behind the bed. We had dealt with quite a bit through that day – a new development in the unfolding drama – and, exhausted, decided the snake was “only a baby” and we would leave the louvers open, hoping it would exit of its own accord, and try to sleep with it beneath our heads.
The next day, it was gone. Nonetheless, from then on, we watched our step in the studio and did not get up in the night no matter how thirsty or how full our bladders.
Red-belliesare the only snakes not to lay eggs. Females give birth to up to 40 live young at a time; they arrive in individual membranous sacs, emerging shortly after birth at about 22cms. Sometimes the mother snake seeks shelter, in sheds and houses, to give birth. In the wild, few make it to adulthood. The red-bellied black snake population has been in rapid decline. Frogs are their preferred meal, and the spread of the cane toad has seen many poisoned. Recently, however, they have started making a comeback, learning to leave the toad alone and ask rodents to dinner rather than frogs.
The prolonged wet weather has brought native mice inside in unprecedented numbers, and where there are mice, there are snakes. The studio is not watertight, let alone airtight, so the woods come in. Our snake sightings were all perfectly natural and logically explained.
Yet we had started seeing snakes as a sign, a signal portending danger.
When Nike found a dead adult snake outside her office, a big gash in its red belly (whether from a kookaburra or the whippersnipper, we are still unsure), we took the message to mean that the threat had passed. We were wrong.
I am not a superstitious person. Or religious. I do not look to the heavens or tea leaves for guidance. If I believe in anything, it is in a natural order of things. A kind of balance that, when upset, tends to work to restore itself. I look to nature for answers, for calm. I seek to ground myself among trees, or riding the waves.
Often, when feeling troubled, I have heard black cockatoos calling nearby. So often, in fact, that I have come to see them as a kind of talisman. If I see them flying – often in threes – when walking the property or driving further afield, I feel cheered, and take it as a good omen. The cockatoos have been staying away from Olvar Wood lately.
As the weeks went on, there were more snakes: a tree snake lying across the path down to the house, a read bellied black snake dead on the road at the top of both driveways, or slinking under a rock over at the retreat. Each sighting marked a new development, a hand grenade being thrown. We started calling the threat… Snake.
There were other oddities, a currawong couple that roamed, foraging, up and down our lawns while one of them recovered from wounds to its neck. They do not start when we walk nearby or even mow the lawn but alight to a branch at head height and warble away. The injured bird’s feathers have grown back now, restoring respectability, and presumably, the capacity to leave, but still they stay. A never-before-seen laughing tree frog appeared in one of the bird baths (“watch out for snakes”, I said) while we dined on the deck one evening, although it did not laugh.
Was nature, our Olvar Wood, trying to guide us? Or was it just a crazy season, the flow-on effect of a string of natural disasters? I pride myself with attempting, at least, to have a sympathy for nature, a capacity to see and to listen. I know this place, can recognise its rhythms, and expect it knows mine. I wanted to understand, to receive the message I was being given and respond with right action, but could see not read the signs.
The day we decided to fight back – to try and confront the threat – I saw a decapitated blue tongue lizard on George St in Brisbane. Horrible. It was hot, terribly humid, and suits rushed by; it was as if I was the only one who could see it, or thought it out of place. I was a long way from Olvar Wood, and suited up myself, but here was a connection. Another sign, an attempt to guide my actions. I wanted to believe that it meant the threat would be extinguished, disembodied, but I felt afraid.
My fear turned out to be justified.
In some vague connection to my theory of natural order, I used to believe in right action. That if you do the right thing, act within the law, consider others, conduct your life in an ethical way, you will be rewarded. The flaw in my theory is that not everyone behaves in that way, or even tries. You cannot control or prevent the wrong action of others.
There is the sort of man who abducts his own children; who runs a car off the road and drags them out into oncoming traffic in order to have them – no matter what. And there are the sort of men who stop to intervene, to help a stranger, recognising instantly the wrongness of what they see.
Nature herself is not balanced, predictable or discriminating. Floods, earthquakes, fires and tsunamis remind us of that. The string of disasters this summer, with so many lives lost and homes destroyed show us our worst fears are possible. Perversely, amidst the tragedy, we see people at their best: brave, selfless and generous. And we are reminded of what is most important in our own lives.
We stopped looking for signs from without. We have taken a path, a logical and defensive one – the only one remaining. One of strength and self-preservation: right action. The day we made that decision, an adult red-bellied black snake appeared in the main house, circled the fridge and dining table, and eventually settled on the bottom shelf of our sideboard, among the recipe magazines.
We live with snakes.