When one is raised on African soil one has snake-alert hardwired into one’s neural pathways from the moment one learns to walk, embedded by anxious parents. Our serpent brothers and sisters are an integral part of life in Africa and flickering somewhere on the periphery of one’s vision is the imprint of pattern, slither, glide, and the sound of scales moving fast across polished floorboards. One is hyper-alert to their presence in mountain, bush, forest, garden, tree and farmhouse.
This awareness is so deeply rooted that, whilst gardening in serpent-free New Zealand, snakes were, for me, conspicuous in their absence.
Once, while walking along a busy London street, my peripheral vision snagged something that literally made me jump, my heart immediately pounding. The people walking behind me must have thought I was some kind of crazy. In the split second of reaction, recognition closely followed – what I had glimpsed lying on the pavement was a piece of black bicycle inner tube. As I said, hardwired!
There is a principle in neuroscience called Hebb’s Law. It basically states that ‘nerve cells that fire together, wire together’. Hebb’s credo demonstrates that if you repeatedly activate the same nerve cells, then each time they turn on it will be easier for them to fire in unison again. Eventually these neurons will develop a long-term relationship.
So when I use the word hardwired, it means that clusters of neurons have fired so many times in the same ways that they have organised themselves into specific patterns with long-lasting connections. The more these networks of neurons fire, the more they wire into static routes of activity. In time, whatever the oft-repeated thought, behaviour, or feeling is, it will become an automatic, unconscious habit.
Dr Joe Dispenza, Breaking The Habit Of Being Yourself
On my first walk through the pine plantations of the Tsitsikamma after many months of gardening and farming in serpent-scarce Portugal, my snake-alert eyes spotted something a little too regular in the patterns of light and shade on the pathway. Lying perfectly still was a small night adder (causus rhombeatus), basking in the late afternoon warmth. We distracted the dogs and continued on our way.
She breathed deeply and tried not to hate this snake. Doing his job, was all. Living out his life like the thousand other Copperheads on this mountain that would never be seen by human eyes; they wanted only their one or two rodents a month, the living wage, a contribution to balance. Not one of them wanted to be stepped on, or, heaven forbid, to have to sink its fangs into a monstrous, inedible mammal a hundred times its size – a waste of expensive toxin at best.
Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer