Meet my students: Audrianna, Brittany and Danielle. We are all part of the Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience (NAPIRE) Program here at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica. Audrianna and Danielle are doing projects with Piper ant-plants, a group of pepper plants that provide food and shelter to ants in exchange for protection against herbivores (insects that eat the plants). Brittany is looking at the effects of land use on Tanagers, a beautiful group neotropical birds with stunning colors.
Yesterday as we were hiking into the forest preserve, we had a momentary snake encounter. The creature slipped away so fast I wasn't able to identify it. Snakes are a charismatic group that inspire awe, horror and everything in between. They play central roles in myth and legend for pretty much every culture I've interacted with. In Costa Rica, the campesinos (farmers) say that every time you encounter a viper you are born again, because you have looked into the face of death and survived. I like to tell my students that story, whenever they are frightened by a snake.
Our snake encounter got us talking about animals and what they symbolize. Audrianna and Danielle were curious to know whether I use animals my novel EOLYN. (Everyone on NAPIRE knows about my novel by now, because I've been making cheap plugs for it all summer.) And yes, I do. My interest in animal behavior has always run parallel with my interest in animals and animal symbolism. I've read countless legends about animals from many different cultures, to the point that often I don't remember anymore where the different stories came from. But they turn up in EOLYN in subtle ways, such that every animal that appears in the book (and there are a lot of them!) carries a meaning or message, no matter how small.
In Eolyn's world, one of the gifts of Middle Magic is the ability to communicate with animals. Now, my novel does not have talking animals as you might find in a children's book where, say, a lion is fluent in English. Mages and magas do not 'hear' animals speak as you and I can hear each other. But they learn to read the ways in which animals communicate: their calls, their gestures, their responses to certain situations, and so forth. Magas and mages also interpret the appearance of certain animals as having special meaning. Very little of this is explicit in my novel, but it forms part of the underlying fabric of magical knowledge that makes up Eolyn's world.
Seeing a snake in the forest always makes my heart skip a beat, but I've never had a snake encounter that does not inspire avid conversation afterwards, both in the retelling of the event, and in all the ideas that retelling generates. So while I have an instinctive fear of snakes, I respect them, and I think they give something to us in their own way. A rush of adrenaline, if nothing else, that spurs us to embrace life anew.
In honor of yesterday's snake encounter, I'm posting a short scene I wrote once that features a bushmaster. You can read it by clicking Works in Progress. Warning - this scene is not for the faint of heart!