Thursday, May 19, 2005

Snakes Alive!

When I started this blog I was hoping to communicate to others my passion for the sport of racing small sailboats - and to do it in a way that exposes the comic side of the activity too. It's not easy to explain a passion for a sport to outsiders. It's even harder to inject humor into ones writing. And I am well aware that my writing skills aren't nearly adequate for the challenge. I admire writers who can capture the essence of a sport in an entertaining and amusing way. Now, when I read a book or an article about sport or outdoor activities I am asking myself, "What makes this writing so gripping...or humorous..or informative?" I don't want to copy any other writer's style but I do want to learn from the experts.

The other day I picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated: Fifty Years of Great Writing at our local library. I've just been dipping in it, sampling writing about every sport you can imagine from baseball to boxing, hunting to horse racing. This morning I came across an hilarious article written by Jeff MacGregor about the annual Rattlesnake Derby in Mangum, Oklahoma. Now there's a real challenge - to write about why catching deadly snakes, is for some folk, the most fascinating thing on earth.

MacGregor has a mastery of descriptive writing that makes you feel you are actually there; and a sharp, sarcastic style that pokes fun at his subject. For example, as a writer about sailing I struggle to find original ways to describe wind. Here's MacGregor on Oklahoma wind, "a white-noise constant that blows grit up your skirt at 10 or 20 or 30 mph all day, every day." And here's his description of the taste of snake meat - "every rubbery, molar-binding, cheekload of barbed rib bones and fast-twitch-muscle meat resists, bites back. This is one oily, ornery little tenderloin. It's an angry flavor, metallic and full of resentment - like having a tiny jailhouse machine shop in your mouth." Great stuff - how does he think of a metaphor like "tiny jailhouse machine shop"?

MacGregor set himself two objectives for his journalistic assignment at the Rattlesnake Derby. 1. Find out how. 2. Find out why.

The "how" part of his job was easy. He concludes the answer is "A) Find a snake; B) Pick it up fast with a stick."

The "why" part is harder to understand. A poll of the crowd reveals little: "hale fellowship, good exercise, communion with the out-of-doors, thrill of the pursuit, fresh air, etc." As he points out this is just as true of quail hunting or lawn bowling "but with a greatly reduced chance of being bitten comatose by a pit-viper." I could add that you could apply the same list, more or less, to sailing. But it only starts to explain the real fascination.

So MacGregor continues his pursuit of truth. He goes snake hunting with the first ladies of Oklahoma and Arkansas. He visits one of the participants in the Derby who is in hospital after being bitten by a rattlesnake. He watches the Derby Princess being photographed with the Longest Snake of the Tournament around her neck. He even eats Southern fried rattlesnake "so you won't have to." The "why" these people hunt snakes is still a mystery.

Then he interviews a nine-and-a-half-year-old veteran snake hunter and asks him why he enjoys snake hunting...

"I don't know," he says......"Because it's fun?"

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