Hope in the Unexpected
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Many people are aware of the invasive boa constrictors that threaten native ecosystems in Florida, but did you know we have a native boa constrictor in our country? I didn’t until I recently encountered one at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. It’s the snake in the photo accompanying this blog post.
My spouse and I were slowly driving the refuge’s auto loop, looking for wildlife, when he stopped the car and said he’d seen a snake. Last he saw, the snake was heading under our car. We waited for it to come out, and waited, and waited – but no snake.
Finally, adrenalin pumping, I opened my door to look for the snake. I was afraid to step out of the car, so I leaned out as far as possible to look under the car. In hindsight, that probably was a dumb thing to do. I could’ve found myself face to face with a snake. Venomous or not, many snakes will strike if threatened. However, this snake was nowhere near me, Instead, it was curled into a ball against the driver’s side front tire. Fear for my safety quickly turned to fear for the snake’s safety.
My spouse turned off the car in the middle of the road and joined me in looking under the car. We waited, and the snake didn’t move. We could see the snake well enough to know it was not a venomous one, but we didn’t know what to do. The snake wasn’t moving, and our car was in the middle of the road.
After a while, I got a hiking pole from the car, in hope of prodding the snake into moving. I tentatively poked the ball of snake. Nothing happened. It acted like no other snake I’d ever encountered. It showed no response to being poked. I was afraid I’d hurt it, and at the same time, I was intimidated by how strong, solid, and immovable the snake felt when I poked it.
I was glad to hand the hiking pole to my spouse. Slowly, using the pole, he got the snake to move, but it only fled to a rear tire. Finally, with more gentle prodding, the snake moved to the center of the car and stopped there. I knelt on the ground about 20 feet in front of the car and guided my spouse, as he slowly drove the car forward far enough that the snake’s best option was to head for the vegetation. We then went and watched as the snake finished crossing the road.
I’ve since learned the snake is a Northern Rubber Boa (Charina bottae), native to the western U.S. It’s one of the most docile snakes and is frequently used to help people get over their fear of snakes. Based on its size, the one we saw is probably a full-grown adult.
If you look at the snake’s tail, it’s rounded and blunt. Their defense is to coil into a ball and stick out their tail, in hopes the attacker thinks it’s their head. The defense doesn’t sound highly effective to me. However, the ploy must work well enough. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the population of rubber boas as stable and a species of least concern.
The most exciting fact for me to learn was that the snake is seldom seen. It doesn’t tolerate heat well and is nocturnal. When we saw the snake, an approaching storm had darkened the late afternoon sky, which may be why the snake was active, but who knows? It was still a hot, August afternoon.
Seeing the snake was an unexpected gift. In that moment, I felt part of something bigger and greater than myself. Encounters like this are exhilarating for me. They rekindle within me a sense of wonder. I’m reminded to look for the unexpected and to practice seeing the gifts of creation. St. Basil of Caesarea wrote of the importance of contemplating what we see in creation. He calls it the “book of nature,” because through creation, the Creator is revealed in ways analogous to the revelation of God in scripture.
I spend most of my days in the human-built world, where I control the lights, the temperature, and even the species I encounter. It’s easy for me to look around at all the destruction we humans cause in this world and become overwhelmed with despair. It’s easy to forget I’m really part of something bigger and better than mere humans could create. Even the most urban of cities are within, built of, and sustained by creation and all its gifts. Creation pokes its head up in unexpected ways, such as through cracks in pavement or a passing butterfly. I don’t have to go to a refuge or even a city park to see creation, but I must remember to look for it, to practice seeing it, and to contemplate what it reveals.
As we end the summer of 2020, our country, our species, and our planet seem to be facing existential threats: pandemic; systemic racism; climate change; violence; hunger, violence, and inequities of all kinds. Left to the limits of my human thought, these challenges seem overwhelming and unsolvable. The unexpected siting of a rubber boa reminds me that’s not the case. Quoted by Jürgen Moltmann in The Spirit of Hope, Theology for a World in Peril, the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “One who does not hope for the unexpected does not find it.”
When I remember to look for and see the gifts of creation in unexpected ways and places, like a rubber boa crossing the road in the middle of the day, I’m reminded our Creator has a good track record of doing the unexpected. Therein lies my hope. My faith compels me to continue living toward and trusting in this hope.