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VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
So much is happening here on Eyre Peninsula this weekend!
As part of the region’s annual SALT festival, Eyre Writers is hosting several exciting literary events.
The weekend starts off with a Combined Author Talk with our guest Harper Collins authors Meredith Appleyard, Catherine Evans and myself, discussing the Ups and Downs of the Writing Life. (10:30 Sat, 30 April)
That same afternoon at 2pm, Catherine will run her Creative Writing Energy Workshop in which she’ll share some more unusual techniques for boosting creativity.
Then on Sunday we have two author panels, the first in Port Lincoln, the second at Cummins School library. Both will feature the above three authors plus local author Helen van Rooijen who’s launching her latest book this week, The Silence of the River.
As an added bonus, fellow author Helene Young – who just happens to be in Lincoln at the moment! – will moderate the Port Lincoln panel for us and hopefully add her thoughts to the discussion.
Sunday (1 May) is also the release day of my rural romantic thriller, Lying In Wait. So there could be some additional celebrating.
Then on Monday, as a reward for all our hard work, a group of us will head off for a lovely week-long writing retreat at which we’ll probably all do a lot of recovering!
Details for all SALT events can be found on their website: www.saltfestival.com.au
It never snows where we live here in Port Lincoln South Australia but occasionally we get a winter cold enough to freeze the water in our bird bath. On the first mild day after one such winter, not one, not two, not three, but four deadly brown snakes slithered out from under our house.
They ranged in size from a modest three-footer to a massive specimen six feet long and as thick as my wrist – the largest brown I’ve ever seen. Because the weather that spring was variable the four of them refused to stray from around our door so they could slip back under the house when it grew too cold.
In addition to the obvious problem this posed for us getting in and out of the house, having these snakes so close to the door was a danger to our two-year-old grandson, not to mention our dog and three cats and any friends who came to visitor.
At the time Port Lincoln had no snake catcher (I'm not sure it even does now), and as the snakes refused to move on, sadly, it left us with little choice.
My son carried out the deed as humanely as possible, cleanly severing the head of the largest snake with our ax. (The only good thing that can be said for this is that it finally convinced the other three snakes to leave so we didn’t have to kill them as well.)
To our absolute horror, the snake’s headless body writhed on the grass for twenty-two minutes (I know because I timed it).
I learned in my research for Lying In Wait, the possible explanation for this. Some large snakes have a second ‘brain’ midway along the length of their body. This is little more than a bundle of nerves that acts as a kind relay station, boosting the signal from the animal’s head. It continues to fire random signals for several minutes after the animal is dead which accounts for the snake’s post mortem movements.
However, to date I’ve found no explanation for the second bizarre phenomenon we witnessed that day: when my son went to dispose of the snake’s severed head, it hissed at him.
South Australia is the driest state on the driest continent on earth. It hardly rains here at all from November through to May. And where we live – ten kilometers from the nearest town – we’re not on mains water. We have several huge rainwater tanks behind the house in which we store all the rain that comes off the roof during winter, our wet season.
Because water is at such a premium through the summer months we have to make use of every drop, which includes tipping our cleaning water over plants and fruit trees in the garden.
One particular hot summer day, I stepped out our back door in shorts and bare feet to water the potted plants on our patio. Because I tipped my entire bucket into one large pot I wasn’t surprised to hear some of the water overflowing onto the ground behind it.
As I turned away however it struck me that the sound I was hearing wasn’t so much the trickle of water as the ‘shhh’ of reptilian scales over concrete.
Sure enough as I took my next step a five-foot brown snake whipped out from behind the pot and shot directly between my feet. I was already mid-stride - if I shifted my weight I’d fall on the thing. I had no choice but to plant my foot.
I will remember to the day I die the feel of that powerful cord of muscle pinned beneath the arch of my foot. Incredibly the snake never so much as looked back. By the time I came down to earth – having shot an impressive distance into the air – it was disappearing under the groundcover that edged the garden.
As stated in a previous post, my theory is this particular snake was one of the more placid western browns as opposed to the highly aggressive eastern variety that are – thankfully! – less common in our area. It’s the only factor I can think of that would account for its being so forgiving!
Interesting fact: Snakes smell by tasting the air.
By waving its tongue, the snake picks up scent particles and transfers them to a specialized organ on the roof of its mouth. A snake’s tongue is forked so it can determine which direction the scent is coming from, the same way our ears tell us the direction of the sounds we hear.
One of the early scenes in my Aussie thriller Lying In Wait involves the heroine, Andrea Vaughn, rescuing her best friend’s daughter who’s been trapped in an outhouse by a deadly brown snake. To catch and safely extract the snake Andy is forced to construct a device using only materials available on site. And since they’re in a national park her options are somewhat limited so I had to be a bit inventive in finding a solution for her.
Of course once I’d come up with an idea – using a branch and a pair of shoe laces - I had to test it to see if it would work before I wrote it into the story. Meaning I had to see if the model I created could actually catch a live snake. (The things writers do for authenticity.)
The device I created (pictured above) was made from a broomstick instead of a branch but is otherwise exactly what Andy had to work with. Essentially it’s a noose on a stick, similar to what a dog catcher uses for restraining aggressive animals.
The opportunity came to test my device when an obliging brown snake wandered past the front of our house. I felt reasonable safe standing on the edge of our veranda three feet above it, and the animal remained remarkably calm as I lowered the noose down toward its head. (It felt like fishing off the end of a jetty.)
What I hadn’t planned on was the inaccuracy of my control in wielding a stick that long. And the forgiving nature of the snake in response. Not once but twice in my attempts to snare it, I donged the brownie on the head. Yet even when I slipped the noose into place and tightened it gently around its neck the snake showed not the slightest aggression. And when I loosened the noose a moment later it simply went on about its business.
This experience was in stark contrast to one my husband had a few weeks later. He stepped from our house and started for our car parked a few meters from the back door. A brown snake basking in the sun a good twenty meters further up the driveway spotted him and immediately launched an aggressive attack.
My husband had done nothing to provoke it. The snake had a clear avenue of escape into the scrub at all times, yet it chose to turn and come toward the house. It came at my husband with such speed, he was forced to run around the car several times before making a dash back for the house.
Watching from the window, I managed to open the door for him and close it again straight after he scrambled inside. Which was just as well, as the snake followed him up onto the steps where it remained for several moments trying to gain entry into the house.
What caused these two snakes – both browns – to react is such extraordinarily different ways I can’t say with any authority. But I have a theory.
I’d been told by a snake expert that brown snakes in South Australia are highly aggressive and unpredictable. But at the time he told me this it just didn’t gel with the experience I’d personally had of brown snakes – both the time mentioned above and the time I caught one by hand in our chook yard.
I’ve since come to believe he was basing his assertions on eastern brown snakes – a regional variation of the species – and that our western browns are somewhat more placid and less excitable.
What would account for the difference in the basic nature in these two sub-species I still can’t say. I’m just grateful we don’t see many of the eastern type where we live
With just over a month to the release of my romantic thriller, Lying In Wait, I thought I’d write a few blogs about Australia's venomous snakes, as they feature prominently in the story.
In each of my next four posts I’ll either be sharing interesting facts I learned about snakes in researching the book, or personal encounters I’ve had with snakes since living in South Australia - one of which (described below) became the inspiration for the story itself.
All writers draw on personal experience when creating their stories whether they do it consciously or not. Sometimes it's a setting that inspires us, other times a person we meet. Sometimes it's a question we ponder - the classic 'what-if?' In the case of Lying In Wait it was a feeling – one I’d never experienced before.
Our family had recently purchased a 50 acre farm outside of Port Lincoln, South Australia (our home to this day) fulfilling a dream I'd always had of living in the country.
Not long after we moved in I discovered a highly venomous brown snake had taken up residence in our chook run ('chicken coop' for US readers). I'd kept snakes as a hobby back in the States so seeing him there every day when I gathered the eggs never bothered me. It was my husband who pointed out that, while the snake might not be a problem for me, it could be for our five-year-old son who often ran around the lawn with no shoes on.
One morning as I was gathering eggs I saw the snake sunning itself in the yard. I recalled my husband's fears and decided he was right, the snake had to go. But I couldn't bring myself to kill it. Having handled countless snakes growing up, I simply pinned its head, grabbed it firmly behind the neck and picked it up, my intention being to relocate it a safe distance away from our house.
As I stood debating where I might take it, I heard a small voice behind me say, 'Is Mummy going to die now?' I turned to find my husband and son standing at the gate watching me fearfully. My son, who'd been told never to touch a snake, simply assumed, that because I had, my death would follow.
Standing there holding that four-foot brown, hearing my son speak those words, I had a profound experience. I'd known of course this wasn't one of the harmless garter snakes I’d kept in my youth but in that moment the reality hit me with fresh force.
To my astonishment, rather than fear, I felt a sense of exhilaration. I won’t go into too much detail here, as part of this is explained in the story and I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, the feeling wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
In the days that followed, I found myself recalling the experience often and wondering what sort of person might become addicted to such a sensation. As I pondered the question, a character began to form in my mind, along with incidents from her past that helped to shape her personality.
From this I could see a possible scenario that would prove particularlly challenging to such a person, and gradually she drew to her others with the potential for creating further conflict.
In the end that character became Andrea Vaughn, heroine of Lying In Wait. In reading the story you may likely glimpse shadows of the real life experience that created her.
I recently watched a documentary about the comedian Chris Rock. Something he said had a far greater impact on me than I expected and I think it’ll stay with me a long time. Truth be told, I’m hoping it does.
Rock’s a pretty down-to-earth guy, at least that’s how he came across. At one point he was being questioned by reporters about a special he’d done on TV. The interviewers kept asking him things like, ‘What are your hopes for this project? Do you see it taking out any awards? Are you hoping to be nominated for an Emmy?’
Rock seemed a little confused by the questions. As the barrage continued ultimately he shrugged and said, ‘I just want to do good work.’
A calm came over me when I heard those words. Yes, of course! No overthinking it. No lofty, pretentious ambitions. No wanting to grind the opposition to dust. Just the simple desire to do your best.
Implied in the statement (at least to me) is also the understanding you might not always hit the target. That you have no control over how your efforts are received by others. Not everything you do will be equally popular. You just have to give each project your all and hope people like what you do.
Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, has a similar quote he’s famous for: ‘Ignore the noise.’ His way of getting his players to block out all the hype and turmoil that often surrounds them and focus on what really matters – doing their best out on the field.
These two leaders from very different fields are, to me, saying the same thing: It’s not about external validation, but about turning inward; not about competition with others but competition with yourself. The striving to continually improve and be better today at what you do than you were the day before.
‘I just want to do good work.’
I think I just found my new mantra.