Country diary: love and fear in the company of adders

I’ve visited this spot for 20 years to watch and enjoy adders, but this last occasion brought me the closest encounters. There were two, a male and female, although my notes from April 2000 record nine at the same hibernaculum, which is a slew of corrugated iron sheets. Never underestimate – nor always condemn, incidentally – a little rural untidiness.

First the female then the male warmed themselves on an old tin box and, at a point of sun-saturation, poured into the grass and encircled my position to settle on a half-rotted foam mat just behind me. In one tender moment of tentative lovemaking, her head and upper body were aligned precisely over his.

I must confess at this stage that while I adore snakes – and take deep conscious delight in their exquisite pattern, fierce colour, ancient liquid movement and weird otherness – these sensations rest on a deep and agitated bed of insecurity at their closeness. I love and fear them all at once.

But today I allowed myself greater intimacy than ever before. I could see at touching distance the most captivating detail: the way the row of pale oval spots encircling his face look like the teeth in those death masks that you see on the streets of New Orleans; the way the extruded tongue had a mucilaginous sheen throughout its length like the silky undersides on slugs; and how the thing forked in its final third acquiring the proportion of flukes in a whale’s tail.

A female adder on top of a male

‘In one tender moment of tentative lovemaking, her head and upper body were aligned precisely over his.’ Photograph: Mark Cocker

You could see these things by adjusting minutely to the shyness of the creature: standing breathlessly still with the patience of a reptile, and by moving gradually but smoothly like the water-under-gravity motion of an adder in slow flow; and by achieving an unaccustomed silence so that one could actually hear those three ounces of sinew as they flexed grass at your feet.

By mimicking the qualities of a snake, as it were, I not only got closer to the beast but I calmed and reconciled within myself those two opposing responses, discovering a little of the true gentleness of adders by acquiring it myself.


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