Friday, June 15, 2012

Readers Write In: Hiker Seeks Help for Snake Anxiety

   Given this recent and excellent summary of the roles snakes have played in our cultural history, a summary that delves deeply into some possible root causes of the fear many people feel of these animals, I thought it was an appropriate time to post this recent e-mail I received from a hiker aspiring to traverse the Appalachian Trail:

…I love to hike! I've been section hiking the Appalachian Trail for several years now and have been building up my supplies to do a thru-hike in two years. Lately, though, my section hikes and the thought of thru-hiking have become sources of a huge amount of anxiety and I can barely get through them mentally now. I feel in total discordance with my environment and with the wilderness and it has become thoroughly depressing. The source of my anxiety is snakes (emphasis mine). I have always been terrified of snakes. I have recurring nightmares about them. They seem to represent some inner turmoil or conflict for me. That's the only way I can logically explain this crippling phobia. I know in my mind that snakes are simply active, working participants in their ecosystem and I have immense respect for that, but in my heart, the thought of seeing one fills me with dread. Lately, because I have been reading Appalachian Trail memoirs and informational books, I have become more and more aware of their presence and I cannot seem to take my mind off of them when on the trail. I guess what I'm writing to you for is advice. I need to be able to take my place in nature and walk with it, and that means walking with snakes.

Kelly L.

   First off, I admire Kelly's goal of hiking the Appalachian Trail. This monumental feat is something I fantasize about accomplishing someday. One of the interesting things about the Appalachian Trail is that it criss-crosses several mountain ranges that represent excellent Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) habitat. Unfortunately though, I don't think that many hikers fully appreciate their encounters with these magnificent animals and I suspect their populations near trails have been severely diminished.

   I also respect Kelly's appreciation for the natural world and all of its denizens, despite a, "crippling phobia" for snakes. I replied that a fear of snakes was a common one but I just don't get it. They're just animals. They're interested in the same things all animals are, like mating, eating, and not getting eaten themselves. But, snakes are so reviled. It's too bad, I wrote. It makes me cringe when I do educational demonstrations and the kids clamor to get close to the snakes, at least until they see the adults shrieking or otherwise carrying on. It would be funny if that was the end of it; but, I think a culturally encouraged fear of snakes is a huge reason people are so callous (or even enthusiastic) about killing these animals as well as being a huge influence in fostering irrational fears.

   I hope the readership of this blog can offer some advice to Kelly. Are you a hiker of any natural areas, including the Appalachian Trail? Do snakes represent a danger to you? How have you managed to hike alongside these animals? Have any of you (hikers and non-hikers included) overcome a fear of snakes? How?

  In a follow-up e-mail, Kelly was enthusiastic about receiving advice via this blog and wanted to clarify:

...I've read a lot about snakes being killed on the trail and have been instructed to do so more than once as a treatment for my phobia. Let me be clear, I have absolutely no interest in murdering an animal whose environment I choose to inhabit. In fact, the more I talk about the beautiful and practical aspects of snakes, the less intense my anxiety gets. I have concluded that my fear is not necessarily of the actual snake, but the anxiety that I associate with them, which I am sure is culturally based, like you said.

Let's help Kelly out.

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