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Don't let fear rule your garden

I was pleased to see a large garter snake hurry across my path the other morning, perhaps on its way to a fine meal of amphibians and insects at the pond, or maybe already full of rodents and headed for nap time. It felt good to know that the lush plant growth this season has provided excellent cover for him and many other creatures.

I can already hear some of you saying "Eeeuw, I hate snakes!" Sometimes you may even add, "Even though in my head I know they're good, they give me the creeps!"

Let me just say, get over it -- and your nervousness about bees, bats, bugs and even birds.

Imagine some people missing out on gardening because of such fears. And life is too short to miss picnics or a walk in the field with a grandchild or a dog -- or to appear silly for doing so. Fear limits you.

More important, most fear is taught and is contagious. Species-ism isn't born into children, but learned. Unless you had a deeply traumatic snake encounter as a child, or lived in a place with many venomous species, there's no good reason for an excessive fear of snakes in New York State.

Another reason not to waste time being fearful: Our ecosystems are in crisis, and we need intelligent adults to respect and support science as we seek to salvage what we can of natural habitat, water quality and native species. Fear accomplishes nothing; knowledge is power. We need a lot more inquisitiveness and passion for nature and a lot less "Eeeuw!"

And, of course, a scared person is the most likely to overuse pesticide, or otherwise kill living things unnecessarily. A lot of good snakes, spiders and other innocents die that way.

To their credit, I have been approached by elementary school teachers who wanted to teach their science units without passing on their own fears or squeamishness. Just by hearing a talk on beneficial insects and admitting that, they were on the way to getting over it.

>Overcoming fear

In Alice Walker's "Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart," a character talks about xenophobia (unreasonable fear of the foreign), and asks, "How do you overcome fear?" She found the Buddhist answer: Make friends with it.

Or, as the saying goes, "Do the thing you fear most, and the death of fear is certain."

These methods work with fears such as snake or spider phobias, and may be something to try for yourself or the frightened person in your life.

>Name it and know it

If you take time to identify a species, research it and learn all about it, your intellectual mastery may push fear aside. Look at the insects in your garden with a magnifying lens (or even binoculars from a "safe" distance) and ask, "What is that and what's it doing?" and you're on the way. Expertise trumps hysteria.

>Personify it

While anthropomorphism is a bane of science, this still works. Name the snake in the rock garden Henry, and say "Hi, Henry. What's up?" Then imagine him grumbling about your interrupting his nap. Henry stops being your worst enemy. My grandpa taught me to hold a snake (behind the head), look him in the eyes and make a contest of tongue-flicking with him until I was giggling. The snake always won the contest, but I made friends.


Now imagine if you were born a snake, with a shape that apparently sends people away screaming. Some theories say that humans are predisposed to fear certain species because our ancestors' lives were threatened by snakes, spiders, wolves, etc., but that's highly irrelevant now in Western New York. Have a little compassion here; it's not easy being green!

It might also help your perspective to ask "What if our cultural or biblical symbolism and paradigm were different?" If the ancient teachings and parables cast the chickadee as the Evil One, would we be unimpressed by snakes but screech at the sight of those wily little black-capped invaders?

>Aversion therapy

Whether it's fear of flying, heights or bats, aversion therapy helps people handle a fear by gradual exposure. You might draw a spider, look at pictures, finally watch one in a terrarium or on its web in a garden, until the fear has lost its power.

>Notice yourself

Like those teachers, if you just watch yourself behaving, you are on the way to self-correction. When you have a critter-fear response, observe what it feels like, what you imagined and then what really happened.

Fear is a reaction to something you imagine that might occur. The mouse or snake might bite you? Run up your pants leg? You might squish the insect and it would be icky? Did that happen?

>Just the facts

In New York State we have 17 species of native snakes and hundreds of spider species, and the venomous ones (of either) are rarely encountered.

In your garden, over 95 percent of the insects are beneficial insects, and only a few pests merit prevention or control measures. The birds, frogs, toads, bats, snakes -- all have important roles in our habitat. A garden without spiders and centipedes is barren.

I could go on. But the facts won't help to overcome antipathy toward these helpful creatures. That's up to you now.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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