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(Photo: vox_efx/Flickr)

The Worst Tree in the World

• July 02, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: vox_efx/Flickr)

There are family trees, and there are trees from hell that are filled with snakes. Sometimes, though, they’re not all that different.

It is only a tree. A tall walnut. Eighty or 90 years old and 40 or 50 feet high. It is the only one of its kind on our farm, but one of many around the Eastern Shore. My grandfather used to eat the walnuts from its branches; my grandmother used to milk cows under the shade of its leaves. My father calls it the tree from hell.

My father has called that walnut “the tree from hell” for many years. In only a few months, he killed 18 black snakes in this one tree. There were so many snakes that he asked a veterinarian about the behavior of snakes and the cooperative extension service about the habitat of snakes and the agricultural supply company about the eradication of snakes. Someone told him that snakes rarely leave home, staying within a mile of where they are born; someone else told him that snakes only climb trees when looking for food. Many told him to burn down the tree from hell, but he worried cutting it down would send the snakes slithering into the house or the barn.

I say he has called the tree by this name for many years, but he has known it for longer than he has called it that. As a young boy, he watched a black snake slither across one of its branches onto the tin roof of the building beside it, stretching out in the summer heat. He says this first snake was as big as his arm, which wasn’t very big then. This was not long after my father first learned to fear snakes, only a little while after he started to remember things.

He barely remembers when his old parents left him at the foster home or when his new parents took him to their home, where he could walk under the dining room table without hitting his head. What he remembers well is waking one morning in his new home with his new parents and wanting to put new socks on his feet because the new floor was very cold. He opened the top drawer of his dresser, and there, between his socks and his underwear, was a large, coiled snake skin. He was only four or five years old, but still today his heart really starts to race whenever he sees a snake. This was around the same time that his mother made him a banana cream pie so good that he ate it so fast that it made him so sick he’s never eaten another banana.

I WAS NOT VERY old when my father named the tree from hell. I didn’t know how much he feared snakes since my father didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, but then they started appearing again in that tall, old walnut tree and I learned just how afraid of snakes he is.

I wonder about my father’s family, the one that gave him away. I wonder about whether I am more likely to get cancer or heart disease or any of the other things that one inherits from one’s family. I wonder about my temperament and temper, and whether they might come from that unknown branch.

My sister wanted a horse and even though the pastures had grown over and the barn where my grandparents used to have horses and cows had aged, my father had decided to repair them. He tore down the old corn crib. He put new siding on the brooder house. He put a new roof on the milk house. He took some logs to the lumber mill and had wide boards cut to restore the barn. He painted all of the new boards green because red was the favorite color of a woman he had once loved. He cut old telephone poles into pieces and made them into posts and we strung wire between them for an electric fence. We tied strips of plastic torn from grocery store bags to the wire so the horse would see and learn its boundaries.

My father did all of these things, but first he cleared the old pasture. The weeds were a few feet high, so it took several rounds of dragging a bush hog behind his tractor to cut them down. He rode with an axe beside him on the tractor because some tree saplings had taken root and needed to be cut by hand. He had the axe beside him when he saw a big black snake on one of the branches of that tall old walnut tree.

He struck the snake once with the axe, then chopped it into two pieces. He stretched both pieces across the bush hog to measure it. The snake was eight feet long. That was a Friday, which my father remembers because he used to look forward to working on the pastures on the weekends. That same weekend, two days later on Sunday, he took me with him to make a brush pile from all the saplings he had cut.

Now on Sunday there was another snake sunning itself on one of the walnut tree’s branches. I was not very old, but old enough, at least in those days, to handle a gun, so my father sent me home to get his shotgun, but by the time I got back to the pasture, the snake had hidden itself. We sat there watching and waiting, and then finally the snake poked its head out of one of the knots in the trunk of the walnut tree.

My father remembers that this was a Sunday because of how he liked to do this other kind of work on the weekends, a kind of laboring Sabbath that belonged only to him, but I remember that we saw the snake in the knot of the tree because I had only just read about all the treasures that Boo Radley hid in the hollowed-out knot of a tree in Maycomb.

I looked a little like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird and worshiped my father even more than she did. Atticus Finch shot a rabid dog, and I remember my father shooting the snake as soon as he saw it. Surely my father is the better shot, and the braver man for pulling the snake out of the tree with his hands. That Sunday was the day my father started to call that walnut tree the tree from hell.

But it is only a tree. Like the one in the book where the strange man hides treasures. Like the one in the book that the boy loves and then cuts down. Like the ones in the book that the man makes into sweaters. It is only a tree, not unlike the one in the garden.

When my father started to call it the tree from hell, I began to think of Genesis. I remembered why the snake slithers on his belly eating dust. I remembered the second of the creation stories and how the snake is the craftiest of God’s creatures. It is the serpent who tells Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. It is the serpent who says she will not die. It is the serpent who says she will gain knowledge.

My father, who is afraid of nothing else, is afraid of snakes. I think of this years later when I write him a letter from school. I have been to visit an orthodox church and one of the parishioners there has told me about a priest who wears no shoes before the altar. The priest wears slippers, every pair with serpents sewn into the soles so that he treads on Satan with every step. I write to my father about the slippers because I know that it will please him to know that I have been thinking of the garden and that it will please him even more to be reminded that his hatred of snakes is not fear, but an inherited feud.

THAT FEUD, SCIENTISTS HAVE shown, really is longstanding—our fear of snakes not so much learned as inherited. Lynne A. Isbell, a professor at the University of California-Davis, argues that snakes influenced how primate brains evolved in her book The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well. An anthropologist, Isbell argues that primate vision evolved in ways that specifically helped our ancestors survive amongst the serpents in the trees; their threat may well be the reason we have such powerful vision and might even be the reason we began to point to direct attention.

Isbell was also one of the authors on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year that explored our neurological response to snakes. Carl Zimmer reported the findings in the New York Times without reservation: “the researchers found that certain neurons in the brain only respond to these legless reptiles.” At the back of the thalamus, near the center of our brains, there is a region called the pulvinar, where primates have clusters of neurons not found in other mammals, neurons that Isbell and her colleagues found responded faster to snakes than any other stimuli.

Now, pulvinar means “cushion” in Latin and thalamus means “inner chamber or bed,” so this plush little pillow in the bedroom of our brains is where our fear of snakes lives. Pulvinar is also, curiously, the word that came to serve as metonym for Roman gods: the empty cushion where the gods would sit if they came to dine at the temple or if they took the place of their statuary at the public games. There rests, then, in our beautiful primate brains a nest of neurons that by evolutionary chance respond specifically to serpents and by linguistic design remind us of absent gods.

EVERY STORY IS A genealogy. I tell the story of the tree from hell not because it is the worst tree in the world—though my father would say it is—but because it is a way of telling the story of who I am and where I come from. In telling the story, I realize that it is also a way of talking about where we all come from.

Family trees are full of serpents. Even our evolutionary tree is full of serpents. I see and think the way I do because our primate brains evolved to point at snakes when they saw them in the trees. Yet what science explains, only story can give meaning. I wonder about my father’s family, the one that gave him away. I wonder about whether I am more likely to get cancer or heart disease or any of the other things that one inherits from one’s family. I wonder about my temperament and temper, and whether they might come from that unknown branch.

But inheritances are not only biological; they are sometimes voluntary. I learn that I was born and raised on this farm with the tree from hell because my father was adopted to inherit it. His new parents could have no children of their own, so while his old parents had too many children and gave him away, these new parents had none and so adopted him.

It is hard to know what is the worst and what is the best. I think of the tree in the garden, what it was and what it became because of one serpent; I think of the one in the pasture, what it became and what it was because of 18 black snakes. They are both only trees. I think of the tree into which I was born, barely known except through biology; I think of the one into which I was adopted, known entirely through story. They are both only trees.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

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