It could have been the opening for a suspense novel. After a week of almost ceaseless rain, a young couple eagerly heads out for a long run, feet eager and skin starved of vitamin D. On a humid summer Sunday morning, even the leafy canopy over the trail seems sluggish. What could go wrong as they jog down an unfinished path into the woods?
“Just as I feared,” said my Laddie grimly, bending down to inspect the grass. I steeled myself to join him, knowing too well what I’d find. Someone—perhaps the real estate companies who use the trail as a selling point for the outrageously priced new housing development nearby—has attempted to control erosion on the stripped ground by covering it in fine nylon mesh. Thoughtful landscaping, right?
Wrong. It’s an animal abattoir.
Whenever we run in that place after a storm, we spot unfortunate snakes strangled in the netting. Presumably floodwater drives them from their dens and into the deadly webs. We’ve seen king snakes, corn snakes, and garter snakes, whole taxonomies of colorful reptilian ribbons shredded in the inescapable thickets of plastic. This one was a black racer, almost three feet long from tail-tip to delicate white chin.
Its still-upright chin. The head twitched towards me, round onyx eyes fixing my steel-blue ones.
“It’s still alive!” I gasped. Kneeling out of range behind the snake (racers aren’t venomous, but a bandaged bite would still interfere with typing, and I’ve got a new novel to write), I poked at the wad of nylon with a stick. No twig would undo those tight threads cutting into the snake’s body and binding it to the earth.
The pitiful sight clawed at my insides. “It’s really snared.”
“We don’t have anything to cut it free,” my Laddie pointed out in that calm tone he adopts upon sensing one of my righteous, impassioned moods (he once told me I’m a “natural-born crusader”).
“Then we’ll go home and get something,” I snapped. “I’m not leaving it here to die.”
“It will probably die anyway.”
“Then at least it can die peacefully in the woods, not strangled in some damn plastic netting!”
He considered a moment, looking around at the forest trail nearly a mile from the road. “Bikes would be quicker.”
We ran the four miles home and he immediately began pumping up my bike tires while I collected tools for the rescue operation. Kitchen shears for the big tangle, cuticle scissors for the finer work, gloves and a dish towel to handle the patient…would a snake benefit from Neosporin? Better keep it simple. I crammed everything into my bike bag and, with my Laddie promising to catch up, headed back to attempt a reptile rescue.
I pedaled as fast as I dared on the still-slick trail, puddles spattering me up to the hips. My quads, wearied from an eight-mile run, screamed on the uphills. At least they’re not fettered in plastic, I thought, and kept going. I felt as if I’d fallen into one of the environmental fiction books I’d loved as a girl, full of plucky kids determined to save their neighborhood nature from myopic adult greed. I wonder if those authors knew their stories would inspire spontaneous wildlife rescue biathlons, twenty-five years after the reader put down the book?
Back at the crime scene, the victim had unfurled all three feet of its body in an ineffectual attempt to thrash free.
“I came back, just like I promised,” I told it, pulling on my thick garden gloves. “I know, snakes are deaf, so you can’t even hear me. Maybe the talking is more for myself than for you.” Clamping one hand firmly at the base of its delicate skull so it couldn’t bite, I began chopping at the first layer of mesh.
“This crap is a lot tougher than it looks!” Twigs, leaves, and nylon balled together in a toxic tangle. The snake’s whiplike tail thrummed against my wrist. (Racers do this when they’re agitated; in a pile of dry leaves, the resultant sound can be mistaken for a rattlesnake. Clever, huh?)
“Why do we do this to you?” I asked miserably, a question not for the deaf creature, but for my own metaphorically deaf fellow humans. Beneath the outer mess lay a heartbreaking topography of fiber and flesh. Filaments cut deeply into the snake’s body, sliding under the scales until they bent upwards like ruffled feathers on a damaged bird wing. Cords cinched around its neck, threatening to garrote it. “I’d better get this off before you suffocate.” Switching to the tiny scissors, I snipped the emerald collar.
Mistake. Its head free, the nervous racer reared back and struck at me, though the remaining bonds limited its range. “Guess I should have saved that part for last,” I muttered. Grabbing the dish towel, I hooded the snake and got a new grip on its neck, but now it required two hands, and I needed the creature still for the more delicate task ahead.
Then my hero came zooming down the hill. “Need me to hold it?” asked my Laddie, donning his work gloves. He held the racer’s head and tail while I set to work on the nastier threads. My child-sized hands, too small to span the octaves of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca (the bane of my musical life at present), proved better suited to snake surgery. Strand by strand, I cut away the netting until the racer’s lithe body surged free. We staggered aside, laughing with relief.
“We did it!” I hugged my Laddie around the waist. The snake wriggled a few feet away and raised its head, looking around. Then it writhed in desperate, agonized throes. “Dammit, it must still be stuck! Throw me the towel again.”
With the serpent again restrained, I examined it closely. There. A final wisp jammed so far under the scales that it had evaded my careful eye, squeezing so tightly that I feared I’d stab the poor snake while trying to prize out the thread. A risky turn of the scissor….
Ribs–mine and the snake’s–expanded in a grateful sigh. My Laddie stepped back and I pulled away the cloth. The racer shot like a bolt of obsidian lightning into the undergrowth…
…right through a massive cloud of mesh washed up against the bracken.
I spat a mouthful of expletives. “We just got you free, you dumbass, don’t get tangled again!” The racer thankfully escaped this time, and its energy gave me hope it would survive its injuries. I gathered all the loose mesh in the area for disposal at home. Yards more still covered the ground, lurking almost invisible beneath the grass, beyond the removal capacity of my eyebrow scissors. The thought nagged me as I cycled home with a bag of scrap nylon dangling from my handlebars. Even if I staked out that spot after every rain, what about other trails in other counties? I can’t combat this whole problem myself. Does it even matter if I save one snake?
Yes, said the stubborn voice deep in my brain. If everyone in the neighborhood saved one, it would add up to a lot. Or if this motivates me to petition the county about that stupid mesh, it could go even farther. Maybe I can’t save the world directly, but I can save one snake. It’s small, but it’s a start. Isn’t that what I learned from all those stories, and why I write them?
Environmental themes have featured in my stories since the first grade, when my story about a “rude dude” who learned the importance of recycling won a save-the-earth essay contest at my local library (it was the 90s). Today, the relationship between humans and Earth still forms a strong theme in my science fiction novels. A distress call pulses beneath all those plot twists and ships: this is what our lives could be if we don’t act.
I don’t delude myself that my books will change societal attitudes about conservation. But if Blue Karma convinces a few readers to turn off the tap while they brush their teeth, or if Syzygy‘s depiction of bleak lunar life inspires someone to value Earth a little more, it’s a small victory for change. Writing fun fiction with an ecological consciousness, like saving one snake, gives me the opportunity to do a modicum of good for my beloved home planet.