A little context please.

Sometimes life gives the very best writing lessons.

Sunday morning on the trail, I quite literally almost walked into this.

photo-53Yep, it’s a rattlesnake. I think it’s a diamond back but I didn’t get any closer to identify it conclusively.

Movement alerted me to its presence.  It slithered out of the brush slowly, at about the speed of a puddle of cold maple syrup seeping across the kitchen table.  It wasn’t five feet in front of me and mere inches from Chester the white retriever who was off-leash, sticking his nose in sage and chaparral flushing roadrunners, quail, and rabbits.

I yelped and Chester raced back to my side. I snapped him onto his leash, then we paused to watch the snake’s slit tongue test the arid morning air. I wondered how to get past the snake. It lay between me and home.

There’s a smaller side path that runs parallel to the main trail. I never hike this side path because it’s so narrow the brush skims my ankles and feet – ticks! – and I can’t see what’s curled up in the bushes – snakes! But I figure there can’t possibly be two snakes today so we backtrack a quarter mile and detour.

When we returned home, I retold the story to neighbors who frequent that trail.  I repeatedly had to answer, “How big was it?”  Audience always wants context.  Look again at the first photo. Is that snake the size of an earthworm? A small curl of jumprope? A woman’s full arm?

I’ll show you a second photo, both were taken from the small side path.


If you don’t know this trail, I’ve still given you no context. Is the footpath the size of a doorway? A room? A stadium?

If you stretch out both your arms from side to side, each of your hands would touch the scrub brush.  The trail is so narrow in this spot, when I walk with my husband, we hike single file. If you focus carefully you can see footprints in the dust, left foot, right foot. Most hikers are too broad-shouldered to fit abreast in this spot.  The snake, not completely straightened out fully, filled nearly the whole width.

The snake was fatter in diameter than either one of my arms.

It was huge. And silent. Its rattles were broken off, making this, in one sense, one of the more deadly snakes I’ve ever seen. When I hike I listen intently, alert to rattles. If I hadn’t seen it, I never would have known it was there.

In all my years hiking the Cleveland National Forest, I’ve seen more snakes than I can count. Some king. Some garter. Mostly rattlers.  I’ve heard some I’ve never seen and seen some I’ve never heard.  Chester has had his nose in a bush that all of a sudden started rattling and we’ve walked past snakes that we only see the second we step past them coiled in a shadow.

This is the biggest snake I’ve ever seen. Does that make it the scariest? Actually, yes and no. The fact that I could walk around it and stand far enough away to photograph it is evidence of my relative comfort.  The most frightened I’ve ever been of a rattlesnake is the time I walked down the side path of my own backyard, felt a slight tickle on my bare right ankle and in some kind of slow motion horror film clip looked down, saw that what tickled my ankle was the raised rattle of a snake descending into my orange orchard, then jumped and screamed like a lunatic.

I don’t have a photo of that snake. It’s the one I’ll never forget, seared into my memory. I can recall that light reptilian stroke on my ankle at will. And now I’ve got this latest silent snake to watch out for. Rattlesnakes have a home range and I walk right through it.

Andre Acimen asks an important question in “Intimacy.”

Does writing…seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life-or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?

Do I want to feel numb to experience? Not at all. Am I less afraid now that I’ve written about the biggest rattlesnake I’ve ever encountered on the trail?  If I say yes, does that answer presume that I’m afraid of rattlesnakes? Can I be afraid, yet cautious, aware yet undaunted?

Does context create nuances of meaning?

Is some context necessary to adequately translate a writer’s experience to a reader? I’ll throw the question back to you.  Can you adequately translate the experience of your Creative Nonfiction project to a reader without providing some context?

Workshops will help us answer that.  We’ll scan the trail. Get dusty. We certainly will pause to marvel at all wild things.

About Catherine Keefe

Catherine Keefe is the founding and managing editor of *dirtcakes* a journal of poetry, creative nonfiction, art and photography. Her creative nonfiction essays, interviews and book reviews have appeared nationally. She teaches undergraduates how to Write About Literature, or Write Creative Nonfiction, or Compose Self at Chapman University in Orange, CA.
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