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.
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.