Red bellied black snake.

When it tried to climb back up the bank it had trouble – sliding back in the loose sand. I watched its efforts for a few minutes then thought that its best option was to come around to where I was standing and go up the easier slope, so I wandered down the dry creek bed for a while. When I returned it was just managing to work its way up the form-work on the top right of the picture.

The Black Snake is venomous but not aggressive unless threatened. I've had closer encounters than this that have all been resolved amicably. Years earlier, and a few kilometers downstream, I was walking along a wallaby and wombat track that was heading straight up a fairly steep ridge when I realised that there was a black snake beside the track a few metres further up. It was shorter than this one but considerably fatter.

I froze, then slowly lifted one foot onto a rock beside the track with the intention of standing on that until I could judge its intentions – most likely a retreat to concede ground temporarily. There was no time to think, but my intuition was that its preferred direction would be downhill rather than up. I was right. Before I had time to move my other foot it was slithering past it, brushing against the inner side of my shoe. As I watched it pass under me it was obvious that this was just territorial diplomacy and that neither of us intended or expected aggression.

As a child, I lived for a while out west on the flat open plains where the most common snake was the Brown Snake. These are reputed to be aggressive but I have seen someone walk straight up to one without it reacting. The usual practice was to kill any you saw. In my twenties, I lived for a while in the eastern coastal ranges and learned a different approach from a long established local family. This was an approach of mutual accommodation and benefit.

Out west in open grassland the snake population was low and if you killed one you weren't likely to see another for a while. In the eastern ranges, living in or beside bush that stretched for hundreds of kilometers and having high snake populations, it made sense to develop an understanding with the snake thats territory you lived in.

If you killed it, another would soon take over the territory and, being a newcomer, was likely to be aggressive, or at least edgy. A more sensible approach was to build up a territorial claim. I've heard that in the past – and, I presume, if you didn't keep chickens – Black Snakes could serve a useful role in keeping the populations of rabbits, rats and mice down.

Most animals have evolved an understanding of territory that, for the most part, involves members of their own species, but also accommodation with other species. There is no doubt in my mind that Homo Sapiens still possess these instincts and that the process of developing cultural beliefs and practices – civilisations – has, over our full evolutionary history, tended to temper and deflected these into a more productive mix of competition and cooperation.

Over this time scale – albeit short by evolutionary time scales – we may even have evolved new instincts – ones that recognise the need for this cultural shift from our earlier behaviour – insticts that recognise the need for these hard won cultural beliefs and practices that have evolved over many millenia through trial and error, suffering and sacrifice.

I also believe, counter to modern hubris, that we are a long long way from achieving the degree of understanding of the world around us that would allow us to dispense with the idea that there are forces at play that we just don't understand.