Tokyo Panic Stories: a city of the dead

Touring a Japanese graveyard…

The surreality of it was astounding. In Minami-senju, Tokyo, while I was looking for the barely- and roughly-living, through a haze of my own cigarette smoke I found a city of the dead. I savored the irony of that.

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He scared me: a ‘Tokyo Panic Story’

An excerpt from a photographic diary in which I encounter an angry Tokyo drunk…

Down in Sanya, he was calm at first. But he shot me this look that put me on edge. There were empty Ozeki One Cup jars near him, and I’m pretty sure he was drunk as a bastard.

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Fukushima

Fukushima: Gone, just gone

For the children, for everyone, Japan lost on March 11th, 2011

Gone, just gone, replaced by an ever-flowing teardrop.

They’re the bubblegum kids no one is ever going to know,

rotting out their lives in the cold of Mishima’s boiling sea.

There’s grace in the truncheons of justice they may have become.

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Disgruntled song

This is the seriously-no-bullshit soup plate,

Where it all falls asunder into metal,

and I don’t mean angry white men playing guitars.

It’s peaceful, the undying here,

and I’m trying to figure out how to make some art out of this monstrous tranquility.

I throw compassionate grenades,

and perform brutally humane triage.

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Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Black Thursday

Thanksgiving is now Black Thursday and Black Friday is upon us: what should America not be thankful for?

The nation gives thanks … for what?

I was never a William Burroughs fan, but I nonetheless find myself thinking about his 1986 “Thanksgiving Prayer,” surely one of the most caustic (and insightful) takes on our great American holiday. I’m in this sort of mood for a reason. Or two, or three.

First off, you may have noticed all the static around the news that more and more businesses will be open today, getting a jump on tomorrow’s appalling orgy of consumerism, Black Friday. That term originated in the early 1960s, apparently, with bus drivers and the police, who used it to describe the mayhem surrounding the biggest shopping day of the year. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

WordsDay: Trout fishing in one part of America…

Fishing on top of the old Smokies

Smoky Mountain Trout Fishing Guide by Don Kirk (image courtesy Goodreads)

In an entry written not too awfully long ago, I confessed to one of my great passions and pleasures in life: fly fishing for trout here in my native North Carolina mountains. As you might guess, on my bookshelves reside books related to that passion. Some, like The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide, might reside on the shelves of any serious angler. But some are specific to the sort of trout angling I do here in NC.

Such a one is the book in this review, Don Kirk’s exhaustive look at trout fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (and nearby environs), Smoky Mountain Trout Fishing. Kirk does a fine job of offering suggestions to anglers about where to find trout, stream sizes, casting difficulties that might be faced by anglers (especially important to fly fishers), and the remoteness of streams as well as the strenuousness required of fishers for reaching them. This is all great info for any angler interested in pursuing that beautiful and elusive creature, the Southern Brook trout, affectionately known to mountain natives as the “speck.” Continue reading

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 8: In which the author submits

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Eventually there comes the moment when any author has to submit what they have written to the jaded palate of agencies. Friends have enjoyed what I’ve written, but one always receives a bit of a free pass from that quarter. Today I started the process of seeking representation. Continue reading

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 3: In which the author goes snorkeling

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

It is a 20 minute walk from Dacozy to Panagsama village through the village where the folks who support the tourist industry actually live.

There is one cluster of small houses where everyone seems to have gone made for bonsai trees. I’m not sure if it is a very enthusiastic hobby or something raised to sell elsewhere. Continue reading

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

Novel Journey 1: In which the author goes forth

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

My father passed away three weeks ago.

His cancer returned in May and I flew home for a few weeks to spend time with him and my mom. He had just completed a round of radiation therapy and was recovering his fitness. My mom was retiring early and they were hoping to go travelling together, bringing forward plans originally slated for my mom’s 70th birthday, still two years away.

When I left, only two months ago, all seemed well. But it hangs over everything. Every conversation. Each moment.

My dad’s sister visited from Australia six weeks ago and, again, everything seemed fine. Then the phone call and the hasty trip to South Africa.

I started writing my first novel, Tartarus One, when I was 12 years old on my father’s first computer. It was an IBM clone with a tiny green cathode ray screen. I wrote about 10,000 words before stopping. The story then was about a man who was unjustly imprisoned in a jail in space, who escaped by building a small craft, and crashed in central Africa before returning to exact vengeance.

It was a clever story but I realised quite quickly that the voice and approach I was writing in wasn’t my own. It was Stephen King’s. And I knew that wouldn’t do.

I tried off and on over the years but, unless one has a trust fund or a supportive, wealthy and understanding spouse, writing full-time is too expensive and the returns too insecure. I have always worked and never earned sufficient to give it a go.

Over the years Tartarus One became Tartarus Falls. The story evolved, became more complex, then simpler, then honed. But I never wrote it.

I arrived on Monday afternoon. He was in bed and hadn’t moved for a few days. He was thrilled to see me and my normally physically reserved father held my hand tightly as we spoke that afternoon. Him in short, exhausted bursts. Every word leaving him panting from the effort.

He didn’t look well. His face swollen and blotchy, pale. His skin cold, even though he said he felt warm. He couldn’t lift his arms, so I helped feed him, change him, drop water into his mouth with a syringe.

But he was cheerful. Chatty, even. He wasn’t in pain, except when we moved him.

He seemed to think that he could recover even from this. The nurse who arrived left me in no doubt how serious things were. He hadn’t urinated in days, his kidneys had stopped.

I’ve always worked hard and have taken tremendous risks with my ideas, ambitions and choices. Sometimes that worked, sometimes that didn’t. My life hasn’t been dull.

A year ago, with an awareness that life is shorter than one may hope but still long enough, I contacted a writer mate of mine. Jon Evans has written a few novels and even sold sufficient of them to pay for an expanded life-style, although he does keep a regular software job as well. He travels and writes and works.

Let’s go somewhere with a beach, sufficiently low-cost to keep us there a while, good internet access, and good diving, and let us each write a novel, I suggested. He thought it a good idea and we began hunting though island nations.

Cuba meets most criteria, except for being an evil Stalinist dictatorship. So the internet is crap. Papua New Guinea is just fucking expensive. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand … either of us have already been.

That left the Philippines. Which consists of several hundred islands. Next question, which one?

My brother arrived on Tuesday. By then, my father could only speak a word or two before losing consciousness. I called the UK and let my wife speak to him.

They’ve always had a very special relationship, going to see cricket together at Lord’s in the UK. Could it be only a year ago that my wife made my dad run for a bus to get to the grounds?

“I love you dad,” she said.

My mom, my brother and I sat around the bed, playing music, telling stories, laughing, sometimes crying. We remembered.

My story, while being science fiction, happens to be set in Nigeria. Why? Well, when my hero escapes from an orbital jail which uses a space elevator to transfer goods and people, it has to be sited over the equator.

I was fortunate to have spent a month in Nigeria over this year, working on a local data transparency project for the Edo State government. I also took a few days to visit some of the places where the story happens. I found books on Efik culture and cuisine. I did my research, discovering I could make my villains much more terrifying than I had originally imagined.

I worked out the structure of the story, the set-pieces, the characters.

My sister-in-law and nephews arrived on Wednesday. He wasn’t able to speak anymore although, at least in the morning, he was able to acknowledge that he was still listening.

When I helped move him, or dress him, or feed him, I could see the dark splotches under his skin that must be part of the cancer spreading throughout his body. If a thing could be said to be evil, they looked it.

“Wait,” he would gasp. Short, stubby words. Every time we needed to move him.

Through the day, he got weaker.

Even as I booked my plane tickets and reserved accommodation, I was worried. What happens with my dad’s cancer? Would he live long enough for the book to be published? He was never much of a reader and the cancer meant that he couldn’t see very well, but he could know that it was written. That it was done.

I never expected the call to come so soon.

At 16h00 he asked me for peanuts. I put a little peanut butter on a teaspoon and he sucked it. Then he asked for cheese and onion chips. I couldn’t give him that. I placed some water in his mouth with the syringe.

He refused food at 17h00. Clamped his jaws shut and wouldn’t take anything. Then he slept, his mouth open, gasping.

I was already exhausted when I packed for Moalboal. I had just returned from South Africa, spending the night before working through my dad’s documents with my mom, helping her prepare for the accountants so they could settle his estate.

There had been no space to mourn yet and it would be another two weeks before I would get any rest. I still had a conference to prepare for in Geneva, several projects to close out, a number of proposals to write and submit, and a report to finish.

I stayed with him till 23h50. It had been three days since I last snatched more than a few hours of sleep and I left my mom alone with him.

She woke me at 00h28 on Thursday morning. I checked that he was no longer breathing, that his heart had stopped, and I covered him with a sheet.

We called the Chevra Kadisha and we sat quietly together. My brother, my mother, and me.

This morning I woke up with the sound of the ocean against the shore. Two-and-a-half days of travel behind me.

For the next four weeks, a novelist’s journey ahead.

CATEGORY: American Culture

Death, Iowa and being 30 minutes late to an orgy with Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge: What’s the best time zone in America?

The United States spans six time zones. I have now lived in four of them (Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific), visited a fifth (Hawaiian-Aleutian) and flown over the sixth (Alaskan), so I feel comfortable addressing the question of which one is best with some authority.

Eastern Time Zone

I begin with a certain bias. Like most kids, I hated going to bed. The big reason: I was afraid I’d miss something. I knew that other people were still awake and doing things, and it drove me crazy. Truth is, this is the same thing that bothers me about dying. Death doesn’t scare me, but I think about things like all the Chelsea FC matches that will be played without me and again, it drives me bonkers. And yes, I’m actually serious about this.

During the summer months, especially, I’d have my anxieties confirmed on occasion. Back in the old days we didn’t have the Internet or cable or a 24/7 news cycle or ESPN. All we had was newspapers. Hell, we didn’t even have touchtone and wireless phones. I’d get up in the morning, grab the newspaper and flip to the sports section to see how the Orioles had done. That was the team that had four 20-game winners, Boog Powell, Davey Johnson, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Earl Weaver at the helm. They were my favorite team. But when they were on the road playing West Coast teams, the games would still be in progress when the East Coast papers went to press (I lived in NC, which was in the Eastern time zone back then; these days it’s lobbying for a move to the 17th century time zone, but that’s another conversation). So there, where the score ought to be, would simply be the word “late.”

DAMMIT! See, I went to bed and something that I care about happened and not only did I miss it, everybody east of Louisville did, too.

I lived the first 27 years of my life alternating between Eastern Standard and Eastern Daylight, the whole time feeling like the kid who got sent to bed early because mom and dad were throwing an orgy downstairs and they’d invited both Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge.

Verdict: Sucks.

Central Time Zone

Then I marched off to grad school at Iowa State, which sits smack-ass in the middle of the Central time zone. This was a tad better. Going to bed early-wise, anyway. Of course, I was in grad school and club DJing on the side to make ends meet, so it’s not like I went to bed early very often, regardless. The downside was that time zones notwithstanding, if something interesting did actually happen, at any hour of night or day, it highly unlikely to happen in Iowa.

Verdict: A little better but, you know, Iowa.

Mountain Time Zone

In 1993 I moved to Colorado for yet another round of grad school. I know, I know – how much book learnin’ does a simple country boy really need? But it worked out great. Colorado’s tourism motto ought to be Come for the Doctoral Programs, Stay for the Time Zone! Seriously, that beats the hell out of Iowa’s Gateway to Nebraska, don’t you think?

The bottom line is that as time zones go, the MST/MDT combination rocked. Braves games came on at 5pm and were over by 8, which meant I could watch them lose in the playoffs and still have plenty of time to take a shower and head out for a beer by 9:30. When I wasn’t studying, that is. But even when I had to spend the night reading 2000 pages of single spaced, 6-point blather about Semiotics (double sided, no pictures, written in a language that only vaguely approximated English), it was comforting know that I could, in principle, have watched the game and gone out for a beer.

All those losers in the Eastern time zone were going to bed right about the time I was ordering my second pint of stout and settling into SportsCenter (or rereading the same page by motherfucking de Saussure for the 12th time because the first 11 bounced off my brain like a superball off the deck of an aircraft carrier). HAH! Send this to bed early, bitches.

The West Coast was still out there with an hour in hand, but by now we had cable and 100 sports stations and the worst case scenario was an excuse to stay up an extra hour watching the Nuggets in Portland.

Verdict: Rocks!

Pacific Time Zone

Now I live in the Pacific Time Zone and by god nothing happens before I go to bed. Or, you know, before I would be going to bed if I had a mind to stay up. I have a job and am approaching middle age, so I go to bed earlier than I used to. But not because I have to. No, it’s because I choose to.

The upside of PST/PDT is obvious – you don’t miss anything. If you’re back east, you’re thinking about bed right about the time I’m thinking about dinner. You’ll be snorking into a drool-soaked pillow for three hours by the time the orgy gets started out here. Advantage: me.

The downside is that if you aren’t careful, you can miss things because they happen too soon. Take Thursday night. The Broncos game was timed for a nationwide viewing audience: 8pm Eastern. Which, if you do a little math, you’ll realize is right about the time those of us in the Emerald City are getting off work. Holy fuckstockings. I had to bus home, then go pick up Ronan MacScottie from daycare, then get home, walk him, feed him, grab a bite to eat, and it’s gonna be halftime before I can tune in.

Fortunately there was a lightning storm in Denver that held the game up, and I flipped on the game just as whoever she was got thoroughly into her enhanced interrogation of the national anthem. But this was what’s known as an “exception.” The “rule” is that things used to be too late for me and now sometimes they’re going to be too early.

Back in Denver I’d sometimes have to get up at ungodly hours on the weekends because Chelsea, sitting over there in Cockney Standard Time, had the early game. On multiple occasions I was down at the Bulldog for a 5:30am kick on Saturday or Sunday (heck, there were two 3:30am kicks when they were playing in the World Club Championships in Japan). Which means I might be looking at 4:30am starts out here on the left coast.

Yow.

Verdict: Can we change Pacific Time so that it’s only 30 minutes behind Mountain instead of a whole hour? Because that’d be great.

Those Other Time Zones

I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Hawaiian zone, but boy howdy, let me say that there was nothing wrong with Kauai that I could find.

Verdict: More research needed.

Never been to Alaska. I hear it’s pretty. Also, cold and devoid of single women.

From what I could tell looking out the airplane window, the Alaskan zone is mostly water. (This, by the way, is known as dramatic license. In reality I was nowhere near a window. The way this jet was laid out you had a section on either side with a window seat and an aisle seat, then you had the middle section which featured an aisle seat on either end and 16 seats in between. 16 very narrow seats. I had my ex-wife, who was mostly zonked on Dramamine to deal with her terror of flying on one side and a sweaty guy who was only able to get into his seat with the help of butter and large shoehorn on the other. At one point I had to fight my way out to go to the lavatory and by the time I got back I’d missed three episodes of Friends. Also, the big guy had slumped over and drooled on my seat. I spent the rest of the flight feeling like I was sitting in an inflatable kiddie pool.

Verdict: Sarah Palin.

To sum up, then:

Eastern: Everything interesting happens while you’re asleep.

Central: Iowa.

Mountain: Theoretically makes even de Saussure okay.

Pacific: You’re 30 minutes late to the orgy with Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge.

Alaskan: Sausagefest.

Hawaiian: Poipu, Brennecke’s Beach Broiler.

Have a nice Sunday.

CATEGORY: EnvironmentNature

Six snake stories

It’s the dog days of summer, the time when it becomes hard to blog. Dedicated and serious bloggers push through it and write brilliant, meaty pieces on the new constitution or nuanced and warm offerings about choral singing and fly fishing or whimsical asides about larping. The less dedicated among us stare at the list of blog topics we intend to tackle, heavy duty pieces about entitlements or the positive role of corporations in politics, then turn away and go back to playing poker on our cellphones.

Better something than nothing, I figure, so today’s blog is about snakes, inspired by the comment thread on Booth’s recent post on fly fishing.

I don’t like snakes, but I don’t dislike them either. We have snakes here on our farm in Indiana and when I see one, I walk around it. Occasionally we’ll have to shoo an aggressive black snake away from the garage with a broom, and I suppose if we found a copperhead or rattler too close to the house I’d probably kill it, but for the most part they go their way and we go ours.

However, I’ve lived much of my life in places where there were snakes, poisonous ones, and have accumulated some stories. Growing up in south Georgia it was massive diamondbacks, huge snakes as thick as your arm that would stretch across the narrow, sandy roads as they sunned themselves. In West Africa, it was mostly cobras and green mambas. In Louisiana, it was water moccasins and in Australia tiger snakes.

1973—West Africa I

Peace Corps training was based in Kenema, where we were housed in a low cinder-block dorm, just a long row of concrete cubicles, each with a cot and a door that was nothing more than a thin piece of cloth on a string. We were playing cards when someone stuck their head in the door and yelled “Snake charmer.” Three of us jumped up and flip flopped across the compound to the street where the snake charmer was performing in front of a crowd of about thirty people.

Snake charmers traveled from village to village performing for tips. They wore black, pajama-like outfits and fluffy headdresses made from black-dyed rags. They carried their snakes in burlap sacks. There was no anti-venin available so locals were terrified of snakes and snake charmers. Snake charmers could handle snakes with impunity because they had “medicine,” what we would call black magic. In other words, they were evil men who’d made a bargain with the devil. If a snake charmer loaded his writhing sacks onto a local jitney bus, called a lorry, everyone else got off. If he came to a village and needed a place to sleep, he got not a room but a house, and afterwards the medicine man performed elaborate rites before anyone would sleep in it again.

This snake charmer was a scraggly man, with brown teeth and the faint odor of palm wine. His act consisted of pulling a snake from a bag, throwing it on the ground so that it faced the crowd, who immediately jumped backwards and screamed, “Wayah!” He’d then reach out, snag it by the tail and return it to the bag. We got there just in time for the spitting cobra. He reached into the bag, pulled the snake out, and threw it to the ground. It took off toward the crowd, who immediately bolted, except for me. I stood where I was and grinned at the snake. Behind me people screamed, “Wayah! Wayah!”

The snake crawled toward me. When it got about eighteen inches away, it rose and hooded, its head level with my bare knees. It swayed back and forth, deciding. The snake charmer looked at me as if I was crazy, then reached out and grabbed the snake by its tail, tugging it back and dropping it into the sack. He tied the top. We stood, legs akimbo and hands on hips, staring at each other. I am sure he was wondering, “Who is this smart ass ruining my act?” I was thinking that these snakes had to be defanged. With exactly the same hubris as a thousand white men in Africa before me, I refused to yield to silly native superstition. Instead of shorts and sandals, I should’ve worn starched khakis and a pith helmet.

After a moment he turned and walked back. Grunting, he lifted his biggest sack, and untied it. He walked over to me. By now I stood on my own little island because the crowd had retreated six feet or so behind me. Looking at me appraisingly, he untied the sack and dumped a cranky, fat Gaboon viper with a head the size of my fist into the dust. It crawled a few inches, felt the heat from my bare foot and coiled into striking position. The snake charmer watched me. I looked at him and smiled.

The crowd was going crazy behind me. Children buried their heads into their parents’ legs and wept. Adults slapped each others’ shoulders and whispered. Wayah! Wayah! The snake charmer looked back and forth from the snake to me. Finally, apparently resigning himself to the reality that I was now part of the act, he shook his head, reached down and grabbed the snake behind the jaws.

Another Volunteer snapped pictures like a photographer at a fashion shoot, racing around, kneeling, turning his camera sideways. Klick, klick, klick, klick. My fans cheered me on. The “wayah’s” of surprise morphed into “wayah’s” of encouragement. Wayah! Wayah! Wayah! The snake charmer hung the heavy snake around my neck and released his hands. He hugged me. He smiled for the camera. I smiled for the camera. The viper smiled for the camera. Klick. Wayah! Klick.

Then came the money shot. The charmer grabbed the snake, held it between us, flipped it over, pried its jaws open and using a small stick raised up a fang fully an inch long. A crystal drop of poison glistened on its tip. I stared at that hypodermic-sharp fang that had been less than an inch from my carotid artery and felt the blood rush down from my head. I felt my knees soften and struggled to hold myself upright. The world went silent. I no longer heard the klicks or the cheers. I couldn’t stop looking at that fang. My tongue was made of dust.

And then I did the single bravest thing I have ever done in my life: I smiled, waved to the crowd and calmly walked back to the dorm.

1973—West Africa II

After training we did visits in the villages of Volunteers who’d been there awhile. In Joe’s village, I went to the latrine. When I came out, I looked down and there, perfectly parallel between my two feet in their plastic sandals, was a short, flat arrow-shaped snake. I didn’t move. Nor did he. We remained like that for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, he slowly turned, his flickering tongue almost touching my bare foot, and crawled away.

Back inside the house, we looked up the snake in Joe’s book. It was a death adder—the same snake that killed Cleopatra.

“Why didn’t you kill it?” asked Joe.

I shook my head. “You kill it. Me and that snake had a deal. I wouldn’t kill it and it wouldn’t kill me. A deal is a deal.”

1974—West Africa

Since it was always warm in West Africa, some Volunteers slept on waterbeds they’d brought from home. Ray was sitting in his living room one day when out of the corner of his eye he saw a small black cobra slide around the corner and into his bedroom. Without thinking he jumped up and yelled, “Kalii!” which means snake. Instantly every adult male in the village poured through his front door, each with a machete. Ray tried to yell stop, but before he could get the words out his mouth a stream of pinkish water poured through the doorway. Inside his bedroom, the dead cobra lay in pieces on his shredded water bed.

1977-Louisiana

We were laying pipe through the Atchafalaya Basin. My job was to follow the excavator digging the ditch in a small aluminum boat. Once or twice a day I’d fuel the machine or lubricate something, but mostly I sat in the boat and watched, there more for safety than for anything else. Every day I’d wash my boat, prepare lunch for the operator of the machine, read and in the middle of the day when it got hot, slip into the bayou for a swim.

This drove the operator and the supervisor crazy, because they rightly thought swimming alone by yourself in a deep black-water bayou with snakes, strong current and the occasional alligator was unsafe. The supervisor would try to talk me out of it by telling me stories like the old urban legend where a man jumps into a river and comes out with fifty snakes hanging on him. I’d just laugh and say that was nonsense, that snakes couldn’t open their mouths underwater or they’d drown.

One day we were sitting on the tracks of the machine and a cottonmouth swam by. A cottonmouth is a very bulky snake and swims very high in the water. Instead of its head poking out of the water at an angle like most water snakes, they form a sort of “S,” almost like a camel’s neck with the top of its head parallel to the surface. This one held a fish in its mouth. The supervisor looked at me, but didn’t say anything. I never swam alone in the bayou again.

1989—Australia

Australia has 6 or 7 of the ten most poisonous snakes in the world, depending on how you count. (You’d think it would be straightforward, but it’s not. Some snakes have very toxic venom, like the sea snake, but have small fangs and rarely bite. Some have venom that is less toxic, like the tai pan, but are quick to bite and inject larger amounts, and whose bites are often fatal.)

A friend was burnt out from work. Another friend offered the use of his country retreat near Melbourne. The first friend went down at night and settled in. The next morning he got up, took his coffee out to the back veranda, and there sunning themselves on the stone path leading into the garden, were half a dozen fat black tiger snakes. Tiger snakes are very poisonous, very agro, and very dangerous. He took his coffee, slowly retreated into the house and went out to the front to sit and have his coffee, where there, laying on the welcome mat was another tiger snake. He quickly packed and left.

2013—Indiana

The other day I was running along Woodall Road and I saw a black snake, actually a Southern Black Racer, dart across the road. I stopped to look at it. It was about three feet long, as thin as a ribbon, and like most Racers, aggressive as all get out. This one coiled up in the leaves, hissed at me and then put his tail up against a dry leaf and began shaking it furiously. It was a pretty good imitation of a rattlesnake. I’m a believer in evolution, but it’s still amazing that behavior this specific could occur through natural selection.