My name is Adam. The story of Adam from the Bible is the first account of human disobedience. My mother knew the Bible, she chose the name, and in her mind, I had a contrary spirit from the start. Throughout my life, when I disobeyed or contradicted her, she told me the story of the cow.
“You could barely talk, just a baby really, but when I showed you a cow, you insisted it was a horse.”
Mom believed that I lived up to my name.
In the Garden of Eden there was Adam, Eve, lots of friendly animals, and the devil in the form of a snake. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was there; Adam and Eve were never to eat the fruit, but the snake talked them into it. God used to come hang out with Adam in the garden, but God has never hung out with me. The snake, on the other hand, has been a constant in my life.
I live in Tucson, Arizona. In desert mountains infamous for snakes. One afternoon while hiking, a creeping sensation slithered up my spine. My internal snake-sensor—I am familiar with this tingling. Slowing my pace, I studied the path ahead. I saw two snakes. I stopped, squinted, and they came into focus: a manhole cover and a stick. Not snakes after all.
But as I walked on, just after the manhole cover, there was a snake. A real one. A rattlesnake, its cascabels in the air. I jumped back, startled, and then found myself smiling. I knew you’d be around here somewhere! I greeted the snake with a bow of respect.
I sense snakes. When working in my desert yard, trimming branches or watering fruit trees, if the creeping feeling climbs my spine, with a little scanning, I find a snake. The creeping feeling could be described as the hair standing up on the back of my neck, but my connection to snakes is not just fear. Perhaps it’s something in my soul. A past life connection. A spiritual intertwining.
Or maybe it’s because of my name.
Why did my parents name me Adam? I have mined this mystery for meaning all of my life. In the Hostetter family, every first-born son has been John or Jacob since the immigrant (Jacob) from Switzerland in the 1700s. But my parents disliked both names, so they “started over” with Adam. That’s the story they tell.
I was the only Adam in my Mennonite high school. Mr. Dietz had a special greeting for me. An ancient teacher with a long white beard, Mr. Dietz wore a traditional black collar-less coat, buttoned to the neck; the other teachers wore suit jackets and ties. When he saw me in the hall, he would shout out in Pennsylvania Dutch: “Adam! Wo bist du?” As he passed me, Mr. Dietz would smile and wink. But I felt shame, and the presence of God.
“Adam! Where are you?” God called to Adam in the garden. Naked, aware of his vulnerability, and ashamed, Adam was hiding from God. Mr. Dietz exposed me: a sinner on par with that first great sin.
When I sense a snake, death is my body’s first reaction. A jolt of anxiety, stiffening of the spine and joints, hyper awareness, adrenalin pumping. When I can take a moment to relax, exhaling as I scan for it, the knowledge that a snake is there comforts me. I locate it before any damage can be done, and I bow with respect, grateful to have sensed it.
Starting as early as infancy, sitting on Mom’s lap in the green rocker-recliner with the Illustrated Children’s Bible, I learned the story of a woman reaching out to pluck fruit from a tree. A snake with a broad head and fangs hangs from a branch. A naked man watches from his seat in the grass. I can’t remember how Mom explained it, but I knew that when God found out what Adam and Eve had done, he kicked them out of the Garden of Eden. Because they disobeyed, we would all suffer and die. And the snake was cursed.
I turned to the image of Adam over and over. This is Adam, I thought. I am Adam.
“Adam,” Dad called, “Get your raincoat. Let’s look at the creek.”
March 1975, I was four years old, and our new house on an eastern Pennsylvania hill overlooked an old-growth woods with towering trees, swamps, and a winding creek.
A rain storm had washed the snow away and caused the creek to rise. The woods flowed with brown rapids. Trees were down. Power was out, but that morning we had sunshine.
Dad and I walked into the swamp where the creek curved around a low place. We stood on a mound of high ground.
“Hey look,” Dad said, “there’s a snake.”
I saw the snake.
And then I saw another.
“There’s another one,” Dad said, pointing. And another. And another.
We realized we were seeing a bed of snakes. Snakes upon snakes upon snakes. The ground was alive and moving. The entire low spot was writhing with thick gray water snakes, golden colored snakes, green striped garter snakes. They were fighting their way toward higher ground, toward us.
“They’re cold blooded,” Dad explained as I slipped my hand into his and leaned hard against his leg, “That why they’re moving so slowly. They must have been washed down by the flood.”
My heart was racing. I wanted to close my eyes but could not look away. Let’s go, I thought. But Dad stayed, crouching down to get closer, fascinated.
Back in the house, Dad was exhilarated. I was melting down. Dad told Mom. As soon as Mom looked at me, I crumbled to the floor.
“We can’t live here! I don’t want to live here!”
I was remembering a prophet and his message.
Pop Doc, my mother’s grandfather, had visited the land before Mom and Dad started building the house. A white-haired giant in blue-jean-overalls and heavy leather boots, he clomped and slid as he walked. That sound—CLOMP, slide, CLOMP, slide—was how we would hear him coming. He terrified me. Everyone started yelling when he came around.
“HOW YA DOIN’ POP?”
I clapped my hands over my ears and squeezed my eyes shut. Everyone sounded so angry. As a 4-year-old, I didn’t understand that Pop Doc was deaf.
On his first visit to Dad and Mom’s new property, he irritated Mom with a shot of pessimism; Mom referred to it as his ‘curse.’
“You can’t build here,” Pop Doc said. We were in the driveway, beside a hole, home of the electrical transformer guarded by a medieval-looking metal grate and a constant hum.
“This is a snake pit,” He said.
Frightened, I looked into the darkness of the humming hole, expecting snakes.
Later that afternoon, Mom complained about him to her sisters over the phone. I heard her retell the story three times. Each time Mom’s voice sounded angrier, as if Pop Doc had literally cursed her ground. Anxiety hung over me like the broad-headed viper in the Illustrated Children’s Bible hanging over Adam.
And then, just a month after moving in, the snake pit was real. Dad, a computer engineer, brushed it off. Mom, squeezing me in, wondered aloud, “Maybe Pop Doc was right.”
Come back for more snakes, mystics and Indiana Jones in Part Two!