Wild & Precious: Milk Snakes

Jesse Burke daddy-o

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When I was a boy, I used walk down to the pond at the end of my street and catch small, brown milk snakes. I would look under pieces of wood and rocks. They were everywhere. Bruce's pond was my favorite place to be and catching snakes was my favorite thing to do. I would often bring them home, sneaking them into my room, usually in a shoebox or jar. I would watch them slither and wonder what it would be like to be a snake, to live that life. I grew up in the suburbs, it was more urban than rural, and not the best of neighborhoods. The pond and surrounding woods was our second home, our refuge from the roughness. Those snakes were the first real connection I had to the natural world. They were intermediaries between the purity of the natural world and the harshness of reality. I can still smell the pungent odor they would nervously emit when we grabbed them. I can still feel the cold smoothness of their scales.

Children are born with limitless wonder and an innate sense of discovery. Why are there clouds up there in the sky? What happens if I climb to the top of this tree? They are figuring out how the world works. As I grew older, I always retained the inquisitive nature of my youth. While in college I would venture out into the desert with my friends and explore the canyons and washes. This was the new version of my childhood pond.  We would look for creatures and study them, we would swim in the streams and bask in the glory of the wilderness. We were figuring out how the world works.  

When my daughter, Clover, was born I felt that part of my new responsibility was to imbue in her a deep and personal connection to the natural world. When she was old enough to endure a solid day's adventure we hit the road. We road-tripped around the United States looking for connection points and photographed our journeys. We were looking for undiscovered landscapes and unidentified species. We were dreaming of possibility, we were wondering limitlessly. We would drive for hours and talk about what we hoped to find or what we had seen. I would emphasize the need to look closely, to look up, and under, and to listen. I would stress the importance of engaging with the natural world. We would often hike into a location and just stop and listen. Listen to the songs of the native birds, to the whistle of the wind as it ripped through the pines, to the crash of the waves in the distance. We collected treasures and brought them back to our motels to study.

One night I was coming out of the motel bathroom and she caught my eye as she peacefully lay sleeping in her bed.  She looked so beautiful and exhausted. I felt compelled to just stop and watch. I sat in a shabby chair and watched as the stripes of her shirt moved up and down with every gentle breath, as her legs twitched and eyeballs rolled around. I wondered what she was dreaming of. Was she running through a field or swimming at the shore? Was she chasing bunnies? (Something we used to say the dog was doing when she would twitch in her sleep.) I just sat and watched. Before bed I took the camera out and photographer her as she slept, I could not forget this moment, it needed to be immortalized.

In the morning as soon as she awoke I asked her, as I always do, “Did you have any dreams?” She quickly said, “I was dreaming of salamanders. We were out in the woods and we were playing with them.” I just smiled and kissed her head. That day didn't go as planned, we hadn’t made much headway and it was getting late. We decided to pull over at the next pullout and hike out into the forest. It was a last ditch effort. We found a trailhead, hiked up and down a few hills, bushwhacked through some leaves, and before long we stumbled upon a stream. I let Clover wander and explore as I sat back and looked for birds. After a few minutes I noticed that she was quiet and very busy down at the water's edge. When I walked over to investigate I saw her squatting down collecting something in my safety orange hunting hat. I walked over to get a closer look. It was loads of salamanders. I was confused. Was I dreaming? The world felt surreal and magical in an instant. What are the chances we would drive off course, rush down the first trailhead we see as the light was fading and stumble upon the very situation she had dreamt of the night before?

Since that day, I photograph her asleep every chance I get, in every dingy motel and every plush resort. As I do, I hold onto the idea that what I am trying to instill in her is taking hold. That she is feeling a deep sense of responsibility and love for nature and is connected to the natural world in a way that I’ll never understand. That she feels at home in the wild.  

Every time we spot a small snake in the woods she tries her best to catch it. Fearlessly darting into the brush. Instinctually, I cringe at the thought that it might turn and bite her, rendering her fearful and wounded. But then I flashback to Bruce's pond and the milk snakes and the role they played in my life, and I let her dart. I let her figure out how the world works.

This piece was originally published in our print issue WILD.


About the Author

Jesse Burke

divides his time between personal art projects and commissioned work. He currently lives in Rhode Island with his wife and their three daughters. Jesse's work deals with themes related to vulnerability and identity, as well as human's complicated relationship with nature. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in the U.S. and abroad.

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