Sharing Territory
Dai Davies, 2014

Some reflections evoked by this photograph
Red bellied black snake

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 kilometres downstream, I was walking up 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 my left foot onto a rock beside the track with the intention of standing on the rock 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 a child, I lived for a while out west on the flat open plains of New South Wales where the most common snake was the Brown Snake. These, I've been told, can be aggressive and the usual practice was to kill any you saw. In my twenties, I lived for a while in the forested areas of 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 kilometres and having high snake populations, it made sense to develop an understanding with the snake that's territory you lived in.

If you killed it, another would soon take over the territory and, being a newcomer, if not actively aggressive, at least confused and edgy about any meeting with humans. 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 – instincts that recognise the need for these hard won cultural beliefs and practices that have evolved over many millennia through trial and error, suffering and sacrifice.