It was a January day of crackling heat. Twigs and dry leaves snapped underfoot and the soil was hot to walk on. We were at Lake Parramatta, which is not really a lake at all but a bend in the river. We were a family of four: husband, wife, a three year old girl and a baby girl of eight months and we lived in a small brick house with no fans. Air conditioning had yet to be invented. I should correct that. It had been invented but was not yet available for domestic use.
We were lucky enough to possess a battered, rusty old car and had driven to the river to find some relief as the temperature soared to 100°F. I spread a rug on the ground in the shade and sat the baby there with a collection of toys. My husband took Lynette down to the shallow part of the river and she began to splash about with no fear and no thought of danger.
I remember it as being the weekend and young people had thronged to the same destination. Boys held races and showed off their diving prowess. Girls took part too but did not compete with the boys, preferring their own races.
I heard frantic shouts of “Snake! Snake!” and people began splashing to the river bank and hurrying from the water. A short distance away I could see the writhing creature making its way through the ripples. I called Lynette but she took no notice of me, enjoying the coolness and adventure of the river. My husband had gone back along the river to move our car into the shade and I could not leave the baby to go into the water and get my little girl.
“Lynette, there’s a snake in the water. Come on out”. My little daughter looked at me as if to say, “A snake, so what?” She continued to enjoy her splashing and paddling but when other people were leaving the water she decided to come out too. She was the last to leave the water.
As I wrapped a towel around her I told her about the snake but she was unimpressed, simply asking, “When can I go back in?”
I became aware of more shouting as boys began to hit at the water with sticks. Finally someone lifted the snake out of the water with a tree branch and a triumphant group beat the creature to death. “Red-belly!” they declared as the dead snake was thrown onto the back of someone’s utility.
I felt a strange sorrow as I remembered a picnic day when I was four years old. The picnic was held in a bush reserve near Blayney, where we lived. During the afternoon my father took me by the hand and said, “Come and see the snake”. He took me to where a dead snake was hanging from a tree.
When I asked my father why it had been killed he said, “Well, it might bite someone”. I was still puzzled; how did they now it might bite someone?
Like Lynette, I had no idea of danger. To me at four years of age, snakes were interesting. Fear is a learned emotion, as is love, and courage and even revenge. When there is no sense of danger, there is no fear. I am still dismayed that humans feel they must kill something – just in case.
At the end of the afternoon at Lake Parramatta we packed up and walked back to the car, passing the utility where the dead snake lay, still writhing,
It lay like a bundle of jewels in the back of the utility. It was still wet and pools of water around it sparkled like diamonds. Its skin was the red of rubies and the black of onyx. This beautiful creature had been killed for no reason at all.
Ever since the serpent tempted Eve, humans had held snakes in contempt but they are creatures of grace and beauty and deserve at least some respect.