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Turning Back
Snakes, Orchids & Novels
William R. Stimson

William R. Stimson lives in Taiwan. More of his writing can be found at

Open Space

Turning Back

I started out my professional career exploring for new species of orchids in the montane rain forests of Puerto Rico. At the time, it felt as if I were at the edge of the known world. But really I was just high up in some mountains, trekking through the shrinking relics of native vegetation that remained. What I was doing was not so much exploring as cleaning up the pieces that had been left over by the great European botanists who had come through a century or two before me. Those men had been the real explorers.

I had an experience in those mountains, though, that has remained with me. Perhaps it has taken me overly long to really understand it. It was a little thing that couldn’t have occupied the space of more than a fraction of a minute. But it struck so deep, it struck down to so very deep inside of me, that somehow it changed what I was and perhaps the course that my life would take. It has taken me these many years to arrive at a sensible and balanced assessment of that fraction of a minute of my life so that now I might attempt to frame it in a way that doesn’t do it too much injustice.

These experiences that go right down to the bottom of us elicit something from within us that rises up to meet them. And that then comprises the other side of the experience – something inside us answering as it were to the outside world, as a dog perks up at the sound of its master’s voice. That something from within is our self.

I was coming down from the high montane cloud forest, following a mountain stream through the rain forest that covered the north flank of the cordillera, when all of a sudden I turned a bend in the stream and was abruptly startled by a complete change in the forest all around me. All summer, I had been finding new species of Lepanthes orchids along streams just like this one. But when I turned this particular bend, I was assailed instead by a startling and abrupt impoverishment of the forest. The greenery was still there, all round me. There were just as many trees. There were just as many plants. What was missing, though, was the diversity. They were all the same trees, all the same plants. The stream was clogged with a species of sedge (Cyperus alternifolius) introduced from the Old World that I had seen cultivated as an ornamental down in the coastal towns. Gone were the primeval richness and diversity that I had been walking through just a second before. I knew what to expect, but I walked on anyway, just to see. And indeed, I didn’t have to go far before some wooden shacks came into view. When you got near civilization, the richness disappeared.

And it wasn’t just the ecological richness of the forest. Something inside me noticed too because it was so suddenly and unexpectedly startled that it jumped and bolted, and I saw it and it ran. It ran for cover. I felt small again without it — very small and insignificant. I don’t know if someone who hasn’t spent stretches of time alone in a rain forest can understand what happens to you when you are there. Probably it is the same with any environment. Maybe that is why the Native Americans went out into nature, away from the tribe, alone, when it was time for their consciousness to ripen.

A second before, I had been a human being walking through a wilderness. I had been something that was unknown, experiencing the unknown. Now I had been turned too quickly into my civilized self, my known self, my small self – and its utter insignificance to me was overpowering. It was a self alien to me. I stopped in my tracks, and turned around, and walked back into the wilderness.

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Snakes, Orchids & Novels

I set out at a young age to be a naturalist. I grew up out in the back country on the Isle of Pines, Cuba and spent my free time there trekking into the wilds to collect native orchids. I was the youngest member of the Cuban Orchid Society and by the age of 13 was credited with the discovery of a new species — Oncidium intermedium. I took it up to Havana myself to deliver it to the famous Richard Evans Schultes who was down from Harvard University. And so I figured I knew what I was doing a year or two after the Cuban revolution when exiled in Miami, Florida I got my first chance to go back out into the wilds.

I was at Southwest Miami High. An acquaintance had a car and was interested in wild orchids. I assured him I could find him orchids if he would just take me out into the Everglades. After all, in my mind I was an expert and knew everything there was to know about finding orchids in the wilds. I became a kind of Daniel Boone when I hit the woods. I was in my element. My acquaintance, in contrast, was a city boy. When we finally parked the car off the Loop Road that in those days cut down off the bend in the Tamiami Trail at a point deep in the wilderness, it was humorous to see how hesitantly he stepped off the dirt road into the vegetation. As for myself, I just burst into foliage and left my befuddled companion far behind.

Although I was wearing tennis shoes — a big “no-no” when you’re in snake country — I lit out at a full run behind a huge black snake I spotted. After all, I was carrying my Cuban machete with me. I figured I could handle myself. I couldn’t keep up with the snake, though. It slithered faster than I could run. In the end I gave up and set off looking for orchids again. I’d never been in a cypress head before and so was fascinated. I was traveling fast and I was traveling alone. My companion still hadn’t caught up with me. That’s when I spotted the orchids.

I had come to the edge of a clearing, maybe some thirty or forty feet across. On the opposite side was an old rotten tree festooned with epiphytic orchids. Filled with pride that I hadn’t lost my touch, I yelled out to my companion, “Orchids. Millions of orchids!” and lit out blindly across that clearing, never taking my eyes off the orchids. I was half-way across the clearing when an alarm went off in my mind. “Snake!”

I was standing with one leg in the air, about to step over a log directly in my path. The only thing I can figure is that I had always known two things about snakes: (1) never wear tennis shoes into snake country because most fatal snake bites occur below the ankle, and (2) never step over a log, as there may be a snake curled up on the other side of it. Hurriedly, I cast a cursory glance down at the log to make sure it was safe. Lying on the other side of the log, right where I was about to put my foot, was a venomous snake with the big triangular head of a pit viper.

I froze there, poised on one foot, beginning to lose my balance. The ground was muddy and wet, slippery. I went to step back but in horror yanked my foot back up in the air. There was an identical snake right behind me. I lost my balance and, so as not to topple over, leapt up onto the log. It was a short little log and began to wobble back and forth in the mud. A third snake crawled out from the log. When I looked down in horror at it, I saw there was a fourth one next to it. And a fifth! And a sixth! The entire open area between me and the orchids, I now saw, as I actually looked at the ground for the first time, was covered with deadly water moccasins.

It was not a clearing at all I had rushed so blindly into, but a dried up pond — probably the last one in this whole region to go dry just before the onset of the rainy season. All the snakes from the swamp miles and miles around had become concentrated here. They lay criss-crossed everywhichway, tangled over one another, eating the shiny silver minnows that covered the mud. This was their last feast of the season. By then, I was waving my arms to keep my balance on the log that kept spinning one way then the other in the mushy mud.

I managed to turn around on the log with a mind to get back out of there, only to find the snakes were just as thick in the direction I had come from. The sight of so many water moccasins, with their big triangular heads made me queasy. At that point my friend appeared at the edge of the dried-up pond. He just stood there staring. His jaw dropped.

I wasn’t the intrepid explorer from Cuba anymore. I was a terrified teenager in tennis shoes trying like a lumberjack to keep his balance on a slippery log right plumb in the middle of several hundred deadly Cottonmouths. Then, that boy vanished and something that had more sense than he did carefully stepped off the log and right into the middle of the nearest footprint in the mud.

It was only then, as I stepped carefully and slowly back, retracing my exact steps through the snakes, that I noticed how caught up they were in eating their minnows. They really weren’t too interested in me. Had I stepped on one in my mad and blind rush for the orchids, I would surely have been dead. But I could see now, tiptoeing my way cautiously back through the snakes, that my footsteps had fallen exactly in those rare open spots of mud between the snakes. There were so many snakes and they were so thick that they criss-crossed over each other. And yet, without even looking down — my eyes had been fixed on the orchids the whole time — I hadn’t stepped on a single snake.

By the time I got to where my companion was waiting safely at the edge of the dried-up pond, I was badly shaken up and had no more taste for exploration that day. I just headed slowly and cautiously back for the road, without any orchids. I gave little thought to the events of that day until a great many years later.

I was much older and completing a Ph.D. in biology at Columbia University when I realized I didn’t want to be a scientist. Surrounded by biophysicists, biochemists and the like, I knew quite a bit about phytochrome physiology, especially as it related to cyclic photophosphorylation and anthocyanin synthesis — but it had begun to dawn on me: none of this had the least bit to do with who I was, what I was about. I had begun reading novels that dealt with human nature, in the deepest sense of that word. I realized it was this I was interested in exploring, more than biology, more than the wilderness. I felt it to be, at least in my case, in more immediate need of healing. How suddenly I then saw the obvious: the only way to heal nature on the outside is to heal our own inner nature. It’s our disturbed heart — our wrong values — that’s wrecked the integrity of every single ecosystem on earth. I got my Ph.D. degree but a few years later gave up my profession as a biology professor and took a weekend job waiting on tables at an Italian restaurant. I set out to become a novelist. The years went by, though, and the “big novel” never materialized. I lost the waiter job. I lost the woman I loved. I was destitute. I still saw no evidence I had any talent for writing. Once again, I had rushed headlong forward and gotten myself into a predicament of danger. It was then I remembered the episode of the snakes.

It occurred to me for the first time how utterly impossible it would have been, statistically, to walk blindly through so many snakes without stepping on a single one. It couldn’t have been coincidence. Something had to have been guiding my steps that day in the swamp until it could get my notice and get me safely back out of there. That something — call it what you will — how can we know what it is? — was still leading me on. This is what I realized.

It dawned on me that where my life was going probably had as little to do with novels as it did with orchids. My life, I began to see, had everything to do with that which was deepest in my own nature and which saw what I didn’t and knew what I couldn’t. It was that I had found my first intimations of, in the Big Cypress Swamp so many decades ago — not orchids. And it was that I was finding my way closer to by turning away from science towards art, away from the mind towards the heart — not novels.

To walk its path as my own is my goal now and, to the extent I have been able to accomplish this on a day by day basis over the years, my life has become richer by far than I ever could have imagined — woman or no woman; money or no money; success or no success.

What I have found is so much more beautiful and powerful than anything that profession or position has to offer. To the extent I enter into contact with that incorruptible core within, I have more by far to give the human world than that world could ever possibly have to give me.

If we can only turn around in time and come, in whatever way possible, as individuals or collectively, somehow closer to what is deepest and truest in our nature, we can leave our children a healthier planet than the one left to us. This is what it means now — at least to me — to be a naturalist. We have to start with ourselves.

This essay was originally published in Snowy Egret

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