By Karel Sloane
There is a banshee raging outside my window. The siren, perched atop a metal tower, extends its long scream as I drive home. The announcer on the car’s tiny radio tells me that, if I am driving, I should pull over and seek shelter in a ditch. The sky distracts me. Lying still on the ground is the only thing that can be done if you are caught outside when a tornado takes over the air.
Not too long ago, I had an encounter with a snake. I was walking a trail that connects my subdivision with the rest of the complex. The snake stretched like a green striped ribbon across the trail’s muddy slope. As I descended, it lay perfectly still. I began to think it was dead. Evidence that others had followed this same path was everywhere. Empty plastic soda bottles, a basketball hoop on wheels and shards of what might have, at one time, been a child’s large dump truck, were scattered in the middle, and along the trail’s edges. I began to imagine the bearers of one of these objects had also encountered the snake, when its head moved. Carefully, I walked around the snake’s full length while it remained motionless. A turn of the head was the only indication it was still alive. When I returned minutes later, it was gone.
What alerts a snake to danger? What do a snake’s eyes witness as they roam the woods? What radar detected the echoes of my feet?
Since the encounter, I have started investigating the Eastern Ribbon Snake. They are flexible and quick. They are not known for sitting still, or for living in Tennessee. Normally, they are ready to run away, or, if they feel cornered, bite. Maybe, this snake was in search of a Southern Chorus Frog or a Southern Spring Peeper when I interrupted it. The snake’s eyes gave away nothing. I have heard frog song in the evening when I walk the trail. I don’t know their tunes well enough to distinguish different frogs from one another, and, I have never been able to get close enough to see them when they sing.
I passed within inches of its body. Why didn’t this snake run, or strike? And, what was it doing in Memphis?
I feel camaraderie with this particular Eastern Ribbon Snake. Both of us are out of our element. Both of us have no choice but to flatten ourselves in the face of the coming storm. The safest spot in a tornado is a cellar. Snakes sequester themselves below soil by borrowing someone else’s basement—it could be an anthill or an abandoned mouse den, either will work. I, too, am in need of borrowing something below ground. My apartment is on the second floor. The spot furthest from all the windows is the bathroom. I chose this particular apartment partly as a reaction; I desired elevation. Single stories, like my Mid-city apartment in New Orleans, tend to flood more easily. The lower they are, the more vulnerable. In New Orleans, I lived near City Park, one of the lowest points in the city.
In Memphis, the reverse is true—the higher up something is, the more dangerous. I am like the Eastern Ribbon Snake, caught on the trail, exposed, and in full view of the impending sky.
Like the Eastern Ribbon Snake, the sky, too, keeps secrets. Tornadoes defy prediction. They keep their size and speed and path they will travel to themselves. The Fujita Scale measures the aftermath, not the actual rate of the wind’s rotation. There is nothing that measures a tornado’s movement. Like the snake, radar measures the rate and direction of an echo’s return to determine a tornado’s footsteps. This tracking measurement is still just an educated guess.
This sky is something alien, cleanly divided between dark and light. It is a foreign object. The clouds move of their own accord. The snake’s skin is a series of cleanly defined stripes; they, too, section distinctly into light and dark. The snake and I share something; we are both powerless in the face of this storm. The snake and the sky share something; their tremulous natures are both of the unknown.
This Eastern Ribbon Snake and I are travelers. The sky has brought us to this spot. This is not the first time wind and rain have brought strangers to Memphis. On January 15, 1877, after a particularly violent storm, snakes were found everywhere. Hundreds of them covered the ground for a two-block radius like fish out of water. No one knows how they got there. It was not the first, or the last time, visitors accompanied the rain. Many papers and journals, including Symons' Meteorological Magazine, Scientific American, The Times of London, Science Pour Tous, Nature, and The New York Times, have reported strange groups of things found clustered together— snakes, fish, toads, and frogs—all materializing in abundance around the time of fierce storms. Humans, it seems, are not the only creatures who favor mass evacuation.
Tornadoes and hurricanes are kin, their turning winds on kissing terms with humidity. Tornadoes are more about taking cover. Hurricanes are more about getting out of the way. I am getting tired of this wind, and its constant interruptions. Maybe I am not paying close enough attention to echoes. Maybe I should be more like the Eastern Ribbon Snake. Sometimes, the only wise choice is to stay put.
Karel Sloane is a hurricane survivor and the author of With The Naked Eye. She writes: “My home was under 6-plus feet of water for over a week. I lost everything, except what I evacuated with. I have been doing book-signing benefits to raise money for hurricane relief efforts. I believe, whether someone lives in Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama or Louisiana, we are all in this together.”
Photo of Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 28, 2005), courtesy of NOAA Satellite and Information Service.
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