Andersen: Showing kindness to a snake
I was on my bike last week, spinning blissfully down the Rio Grande Trail on a beautiful summer day, when I came up upon a man blocking the trail. He was standing over something in a protective stance, waving me to slow down.
I thought someone might have crashed or that a small child was nearby. I slowed down and saw what he was protecting — a snake.
The garter snake formed a wavy line at the edge of the trail, poised to cross the swath of gravel. As I slowly passed, the man was urging it to move. “Go on, now! It’s safe to cross.” He was waving his hand at the snake, as if carefully coaxing a small child to step out onto a busy road.
And it was a busy road. As the Roaring Fork Valley urbanizes, so do urban traffic levels on our biking and hiking trails. More and more visitors are out enjoying the coolness of the mountains. You would, too, if you lived in “Hot town, summer in the city, back of my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty.”
Consider Phoenix, where temps hit the 120s and where a stroll outdoors could be fatal. “Only mad dogs and Englishmen,” goes the musical, but no one is singing nostalgic about the heat in Phoenix. No one is nostalgic for the fires of hell.
The snake was on the gravel section of the Rio Grande Trail near Aspen, a mile or so of trail that’s yet to be paved. When that’s done, the entire Rio Grande corridor will have been transformed to urban standards. And so it goes.
I could lament change in this valley, but that’s fruitless. Questioning the unimpeachable ethic of growth is blasphemy for those who equate success with numbers, who measure progress with profits.
Never mind that urban levels and types of crime have become epidemic here or that traffic jams have become an acceptable pattern or that stressors are off the charts for a valley that not long ago enjoyed a rural ambience.
The man showing kindness to a snake was uplifting. His act was a humane sign of caring. How nice, I thought, during my ride down this beautiful valley, that if you’re not trying to get somewhere fast there are options to the urban corridor Highway 82 has morphed into.
The Rio Grande Trail is a great option, offering a peaceful ride through treasured vistas above the river, beneath canopies of cottonwoods, through open spaces that were once agricultural lands.
Maybe it was the influence of pastoral nature that prompted this man to show kindness to a lowly reptile. Perhaps kindness to a harmless animal is innate for us, cultivated by the sympathy and ethics Charles Darwin said spring from our commonalty with the animal world.
Albert Schweitzer agreed: “Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.” Schweitzer’s reverence for life included a hapless garter snake wriggling across the Rio Grande Trail. His abiding love encircled everything, from microbes to snakes to human beings.
And so he moralized: “A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives.”
That man showing kindness to a snake was acting on high principles. He was respecting life through moral instinct. I should have stopped and helped him move that snake to safety. I should have acknowledged him with gratitude. I should have offered him my hand in friendship.
Instead, like most of us do, I pushed ahead with my agenda to reach Basalt according to schedule. The fact that I thought of him at all — and think of him still — is the result of a tug on my own morality, an extension of my sympathy for what I observed of his humane treatment.
I thank that man now for reminding me of virtuous acts born from the same deep code of conduct that Schweitzer preached right here in Aspen in 1949. In a crazy, violent world, those acts of kindness deserve recognition and honor.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.