August 02, 2008

The Rattlesnake Initiation

When I was bitten by a rattlesnake just outside Tucson, where writer Erec Toso lives, I spent two nights in the hospital, got rid of my crutches after a week, and was completely healed after a month.

Toso had a much rougher time, but he got a book out of it, one that uses the encounter with Crotalus scutulatus to talk about a number of larger issues, including the whole New West issue of how we should live among sharp-toothed and/or venomous wildlife.

That book, Zero at the Bone: Rewriting Life after a Snakebite, was published last year by the University of Arizona Press.

We meet Toso first off as trail runner, painter, U. of Arizona writing teacher, husband and dad, still cherishing romantic dreams:

Why, I wondered, had I caved into this life? . . . . It had not been my vision to be a householding teacher, a worker bee. . . . I thought I should set up my life to be more free, maybe move to Montana and get a big dog, a sheepskin coat, and write muscular action movels about climbing mountains or running rivers, or outrunning and foiling the greedy corporate evildoers.

But walking across his own front yard one evening, bringing his sons home from the community swimming pool, he is bitten:

As sophisticated as a syringe, the delivery system did its work. Then the snake rattled a dry leaves whir.

And all his life evaporated . . .

I became little more than a piece of meat that was being digested by highly toxic enzymes, a body that soon could not work or walk and that was in the first round of a fight for its life. The fibers I wove together as a kind of shield to protect myself against the pains and threats of the world, both inside and out, unraveled, leaving me holding only threads, a searing vulnerability.

And then the medical part begins, with Toso taking the first initiatory journey on the wings of venom and morphine. I know that one: at one point, as my gurney was wheeled down corridors from the emergency room to the ICU, the Tucson PD K-9 officer walking ahead of us turned into a fullblown Guardian of the Underworld.

Toso had the additional misfortune of contracting a secondary infection—all snakebites leave bacteria behind, bacteria deposited by the last defecation of their prey on its way down the snake's gullet. Sent home in a wheelchair after four days in the hospital, Toso has barely started to catch up on the new semester when an infected abscess sends him back to the emergency room.

As the medical story progresses, however, what interests Toso the writer is the snake story--how one culture treats them as holy while another wants to kill them on sight. As Southwesterners keep moving to the desert's edge, snake encounters increase, and as a biologist whom he interviews remarks, "We need to reconfigure the stories we tell about snakes. The ones we have just don't work when it comes time to share the desert."

Meanwhile, Toso sees himself changing, becoming more mindful, less driven—changed. If you came for the scary rattlesnake story, you get it, including biochemistry and a little herpetology from the biologists, but Zero to the Bone is really the story of a man "in the middle of the road of my life," to quote Dante, who awakes in an emergency room where the true way was wholly lost and has to re-evaluate everything.


Mungo said...

Ouch. I've just read your rattlesnake bite story - was it the rattlesnake who was wearing sandals or was that you?

Adding you to my RSS reader... can't wait to read more.



Chas S. Clifton said...

Me, of course. God told the snakes to crawl on its belly in Genesis 3:14

Before that, they could wear sandals. Or high-heeled pumps, for all I know.

(No one reads closely on the Internet, have you noticed?)

Unknown said...

Up here in Ontario, Canada you will often find during the winter months straight, sometimes wiggly tracks in the snow. These are left by snakes wearing cross-country skis. But I do suppose on warm summer nights, they might be prone to putting on a pair of high-heeled pumps - to each their own... :-)


Anonymous said...

:::shudder::: Great post on rattlesnakes. Dan got grazed about 4 years ago by a baby rattler. Even though it just broke the skin in a scratch that most of us wouldn't bother to even wash off, he was sick for 3 days.

On Wednesday, we were walking around Martin Lake at Lathrop Park we passed a shrub around dusk and had the shrub rattle at us. Dan did a quick "honey, that's a rattler. Let's move." We flew back to the truck.

mdmnm said...

Great post, Chas. Interesting book and I'm glad to get your unusually qualified perspective on it.