moving rectilinearly like an immense caterpillar over dank forest substrate. What would
it be like in her world of chemical and tactile sensations, I wondered, with one's head so
far from one's tail? And out in nature, how would her presence affect other creatures?
I lacked field experience with any snake like Ralph or Samantha until one evening in
2007, when I entered a Mato Grosso swamp with Kelly and her Brazilian research col-
laborators. We were collecting frogs, but my mind drifted to the following week, when
we would tour a flooded savanna near the Bolivian border. The Pantanal is famously rich
in wildlife, and since we'd have wetland access by boat and horseback, I hoped for a
yellow anaconda; we were on the edge of the much heftier green anaconda's geograph-
ic range, but even its smaller cousin might surpass the largest wild snake I'd ever seen.
That ten-foot Costa Rican boa constrictor, though impressively surly, was hardly a giant
compared to some pythons and anacondas.
Now I waded in knee-deep water, camera slung over one shoulder, and consigned
a treefrog to the plastic bag clutched in my left hand. Fernando Zara, an invertebrate
zoologist whose ophidiophobia rivals my discomfort around his beloved arthropods,
walked several yards ahead, and Natália Pansonato, a Brazilian undergraduate who had
never seen a live snake, was off to Zara's left. The others were across open water behind
a palm grove, barely within earshot, and like us they searched for chorusing amphibians
and swatted insects in the heavy night air. Our headlamps sliced back and forth through
the swamp, its vegetation glistening under silver clouds and a poignantly full moon.
My light passed along branches, up and down yard-long grass leaves, as I scanned
for frogs to catch and spiders to avoid. Every minute or so I glanced about for roots that
might snag a boot or a bottom hole that could send me splashing, all the while humming
a Mark Knopfler song about “digging up a diamond, rare and fine.”36 36 Suddenly there
were staggered, dark coffee saucers winding past my leg, like black leaves twisting in
an olive current, and after a flash of dissonance— lilypadsshouldbeonthesurface,and
why are they moving? —my brain shouted, Green anaconda! As her tail came into view
I grabbed with one hand, whereupon the snake jerked loose, reappearing a couple of
yards to my right. I took a few steps and lightly laid hands on the massive torso, worried
that restraint would provoke constriction, and waited for it to taper. Then, after feeling
the dimple of her vent pass over a fingertip, I seized the tail and pulled up toward my
The next few seconds were chaotic, heavy with snaky unknowns. Zara sloshed over
to help, but my only plan was to drag the anaconda onto land, get a better look—and
make another plan. The snake's torso glinted like a submarine parting the moonlit wa-
ters, then arced sideways, and I wondered if big toothy jaws were swinging our way.
Instead the snake strained forward, sliding against the plastic bag in my left hand, and
I struggled backward with the tail clutched in my right hand as, inexorably, she pulled
free. Zara and I circled in the shallows scanning for her spots, but my spider-loving
friend lagged back, and I flinched as something bumped my leg, so maybe visions of
formidable girth had compromised our enthusiasm. The two of us were babbling—“She
was huge!” I shouted, to which Zara replied, “Puta merda, Harry, ela era enorme!”—and
Kelly called for quiet because they were recording frog calls. When I looked toward
where we'd walked in off the road, Natália sat wild-eyed and silent atop a fencepost, as
if treed by some phantasmagorical swamp monster.