Snake Charmers and Laura Pedersen

Nag Panchami, the Hindu festival honoring the king cobra, was celebrated on August 4 this year. This week, NPR reported on the decline of India’s snake charmers. Laura Pedersen, author of Buffalo Gal and Buffalo Unbound, wrote on king cobras and their charmers in her upcoming book, Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws, due out in spring 2012:

Attention ophidiophobes. Serpents do not lurk around every corner or hide under hotel beds.  I did not see a single free-ranging reptile throughout my trip, which included animal sanctuaries and national parks. So it’d be silly for someone to skip India for fear of running into a snake since they’re everywhere throughout the United States. In New York State alone we have three types of poisonous snakes—rattlers, copperheads, and massasauga—along with seriously scary-looking milk snakes, water snakes, and eight-foot black rat snakes. Nonetheless, during a childhood spent largely out of doors, I managed not to become a meal for a single one of them. Yes, vipers live among us and we among them.

Snake charming is a dying profession in India, largely a result of the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, which prohibits owning and selling serpents but wasn’t really enforced until animal-rights activists became involved during the 1990s. However, you can occasionally find practitioners of this ancient art at marketplaces, tourist attractions, and festivals, hypnotizing snakes by playing musical instruments, and sometimes handling them. Snakes are considered sacred, and their charmers are regarded as holy men who are influenced by the gods. Ancient artwork regularly depicts the various gods being guarded by cobras. Most snake charmers (at least the ones still living) have removed the poison glands from the snake’s head or defanged it. Spoiler alert: snakes don’t really dance to the music because they have very poor hearing (do you see any ears?) but can sense vibrations along the ground.

While presidents have been known to travel with mountain bikes, golf pros, and decks of cards, Indian presidents always head to the summer retreat with at least four snake wranglers and one monkey catcher. In 2000 (the last year for which figures are available), a total of four snakes managed to sneak into the executive retreat. At least guests needn’t fret that the proverbial bump in the night is a restless ghost.

As India continues its building boom, many former snake charmers are recareering as snake rescuers, capturing snakes everywhere, from presidential palaces to suburban homes, and returning them to the wild.  I can only hope this works better than my dad’s effort to relocate the birdfeeder-raiding squirrels in his backyard to the dam site five miles away, as it seems to take them less than a day to make the journey home.

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Laura Pedersen Discusses Writing, Weather, and Her Next Book

In honor of the chilly weather and some rather close calls on the ice-covered highway this morning, we caught up with Laura Pedersen, Fulcrum’s hilarious expert on all things winter and best-selling author of Buffalo Unbound: A Celebration (October 2010, 9781555917357) and Buffalo Gal: A Memoir (9781555916923). Pedersen discussed with us her inspiration and writing process for Buffalo Unbound and offered some great advice for aspiring authors.

Pedersen is a former New York Times columnist and the author of ten books, including the award-winning humorous memoir Buffalo Gal. Buffalo Unbound: A Celebration follows Pedersen back to the streets of her beloved hometown, Buffalo, New York. In a series of sparkling essays, Pedersen reveals why this adaptable and loveable city is one of the best places in America to live. Please visit her website,

Please talk a little bit about your decision to begin this journey and write Buffalo Unbound.

Buffalo Unbound was an unusual book for me in that it was inspired by seeing my hometown on Forbes magazine’s list of most miserable cities in which to live two years running. As a populace we certainly don’t feel miserable—cold medicine isn’t selling at a higher rate than usual, and local festivals are getting record turnouts. When I took a closer look at the criteria being used to measure our “misery,” I realized that the judges weren’t taking into account art, architecture, cuisine, theater, dance, or culture in general. It so happens that in these areas the city and surrounding towns excel, and thus it wasn’t hard to compile a series of humorous essays outlining all that’s offered. Additionally, it’s a big sports city, there’s a phenomenal local music scene, and Buffalo has a national reputation as being The City of Good Neighbors, which one may think is hard to quantify, but a Buffalonian will truly lend you his last pair of long johns.

What was the most challenging part of creating the book? Favorite part? Any humorous incidents along the way?

It’s hard to be a food critic as a teetotaling vegetarian. But I grew up on regional favorites such as beef on weck sandwiches, chicken wings, charbroiled hotdogs and Bocce pizza, so I could cover that from memory. With so many Irish friends it was also possible to weigh in on the local breweries. Of course I still eat sponge candy and drink loganberry and use Weber’s mustard. Western New York is chockablock with interesting sports history, record-breaking teams, talented tailgaters and dedicated fans, and I wanted to give them their due. This was the biggest challenge since I haven’t spent much time in the bleachers. I called a high school classmate who is now a sports columnist for The Buffalo News to explain “wide right,” “in the crease,” and “bowling ball shots” (yes, they involve a real bowling ball, but you can wear your own shoes). The best part was digging through some interesting history about the War of 1812, famous storms, and local eccentrics with an international following, such as Roycroft movement founder Elbert Hubbard. (Roycrofters were artisans who had a strong influence on early twentieth-century architecture and design.)

Please tell us about your writing process and where you find inspiration. Do you, as a seasoned author, have any advice for hopeful authors?

I’ve always enjoyed writing. I’m probably the only person to be suspended from high school for writing attendance notes in the form of comic sonnets. I enjoy humor and so I seek out subjects that can be portrayed in a humorous light. Leo Tolstoy said, “The aim of the artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” Okay, this is coming from the Russian realist who wrote Anna Karenina, which ends with the main character hurling herself under a train, but I’m a believer in affirmation. The newspaper headlines are too depressing, and so many people are battling illness. I like to try and create something that will give people a laugh or make them feel happy. When it rains in Buffalo, the locals like to say, “Well, it could be snow.” And when it starts to snow we say, “Well, it could be a blizzard.” And when it’s a blizzard we hunker down and get out the board games and have a rollicking good time.

My own affirmations are here. Most people don’t know that I’m an ordained minister and give a few sermons around the country every year, sort of a wandering UU (Unitarian Universalist).

I’m often asked about writing and publishing and my thoughts can be found here: Bottom line, if you write one page a day (with time off for 4th of July fireworks, turkey, trick-or-treating, and Black Friday shopping) you’ll have a book at the end of a year.

What do you think the subject will be for your next book?

I’m working on a collection of humorous travel essays about India aimed at being a national (actually international) version of Buffalo Unbound, with dashes of history, commentary, and current events. India’s economy has been growing at a staggering 9 percent and the subcontinent is expected to become the fastest growing large country over the next twenty-five years, even beating out China. Progress is creating opportunities for women and children, while putting an end to practices such as underage marriage and women being unable to inherit from the estates of their parents. Meantime, an increased standard of living has made the subcontinent a much more palpable tourist destination. Likewise, the book Eat, Pray, Love popularized “finding yourself through travel” and India has always been a fantastic place for that.