Saturday, June 18, 2005
Snake! Part 2
The rattlesnake was coiled mostly under the log, except for his head and neck, which were leaning against the log pointing up at the sky and ready to strike at anyone who stepped over the log.
Which was alarming, because the log laid across the path to the new Bird Gap shelter on the Appalachian Trail, and anyone hiking from the shelter would have unsuspectingly stepped over the log, only to have had the rattler strike straight up, biting the unlucky hiker in the leg.
And I was the one hiking along the path.
Fortunately, I was not hiking from the shelter but toward it, and clearly saw the snake coiled up on the uptrail side of the log, although it just as easily could have been on the downtrail side and I would have been the unlucky hiker.
We had hiked as far as the large campground at Bird Gap, just up the Appalachian Trail from the confluence with the Freeman Trail. During May's recon trip, it looked like the best place for group meditation for the Zen hike. But today, the trail was fairly crowded, and there was already a loud group of middle-aged white men and women there, and a Boy Scout troop coming up behind us who were already starting to loiter at the campground.
It was far too noisy and far too public to be conducive to meditation. But the group from the Zen Center appeared tired and thirsty from the hike up Gaddis Mountain leading to this spot, and had already taken their knapsacks off and were relaxing.
There was a new trail leading to a new shelter, so I decided to hike down to the shelter to see if it was a good alternate spot for sitting. And as I was hiking toward the shelter, I came across the log and the rattlesnake not two steps ahead of me.
Apparently, rattlesnakes are prevalent along this stretch of the trail. According to Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce's Thru-Hiker Handbook for the Appalachian Trail, "Grandma" Gatewood, the first woman to through-hike the AT (in 1955 at age 69), was startled by a big rattlesnake coiled in the trail near here.
I studied the snake for a minute. It wasn't moving - either it was asleep or it was stalking a potential meal along the log - but either way, it was motionless. I hiked back up the trail and warned the adult leader of the Boy Scout troop not to go down the path, but he just looked at me wide-eyed and nodded his head as if I had said, "Martians have stolen my Cheerios." "Okay, whatever, just leave," his body language told me. Apparently I had broken some taboo by wandering from my tribe to speak to his.
Whatever. In any event, the boys weren't heading down the path toward the rattler.
I asked the others Zen hikers if they wanted to see a rattlesnake, and six of us hiked back down to the log. He was still there, but the sound of so many feet approaching woke it up out of its slumber, and it slipped up and over the log and disappeared over the other side.
It was a beautiful animal, terrible and lethal in appearance, dark and diamond backed. It had every appearance of an efficient killing machine. Jim pointed out that Joan Halifax once wrote that venomous snakes have a purpose in the dharma, as they increase our awareness of our surroundings.
We moved on, and eventually left the Appalachian Trail for the less-traveled Slaughter Gap Trail. Along the way, we came across a nice level area and had a 30-minute meditation.
One of the first things one becomes aware of sitting zazen in the forest are the birdsongs, and how one bird picks up the song of another and finishes it. It sounded like a headphone gimmick where a birdsong would start in the right channel and end in the left.
One next becomes aware of insects - flying ones buzzing around your head and landing to drink up the sweat on your face, and crawling ones on your legs and arms. And looking deeper, one realizes how the mind is attracted to the pleasant birdsongs and annoyed by the unpleasant insects, and how we discriminate. So I worked at allowing the bugs their access to me without begrudging them, and experienced, but did not delight in, the birdsongs.
The great Zen poet Ryokan (and this) was concerned that by sleeping outdoors under a mosquito netting, he was denying mosquitoes a meal, and thus contributing to their suffering. So he would sleep with one arm or one leg sticking out of the netting to feed the mosquitoes.
Ominous rumbles of lovely thunder soon mixed with the birdsongs as we sat, but I tried not to allow my mind to analyze the sound (was a storm moving in? do we need to get moving?), but just continued to sit, focusing on my breath whenever the mind wandered.
Afterwards, we hiked on back to the trailhead and got caught in a drenching downpour about 200 yards from the end of the trail.
Despite the rattlesnake, or maybe because of it, and despite the rain, or maybe because of it, it was a wonderful hike and a great day. I wish you were there, because to appreciate it, you had to be there.