Saturday, 26 April 2014

A type of paranoia infects me when I’m looking for Adders. Each step becomes overthought for fear of landing on top of England’s only venomous snake, hidden in ankle deep heather and half-awake in the cold easter sun. It would be just my luck. With each step the heather trembles, its dried kinked roots snap and shake. It’s a little like learning to walk again with due care and distrust, a head bowed thoroughly inspecting the ground and short shuffling steps.

It is also utterly stupid. The chance of finding an Adder seems remote, the chance of two fangs injecting me with a mild venom and becoming one of 100 people a year who seek medical attention — or one of 50 people a year to whom this happens who didn’t try to pick up the Adder first — seems remoter still. Or being the first person to die of one since 1975, or the fifteenth since 1876… You can balance the odds against the 'fatal haemothorax [and] massive haematemesis’* of the bite itself. But to experience that (and no fun thing is ever prefixed with ‘haem’) you first need to find your snake.

West of the reedbeds and woods lies the Suffolk Sandlings. Purple-brown heather, Scots Pines and exploded yellow gorse bushes stretch around for miles; part of a chain of sandy heaths running parallel to Suffolk's shingle shoreline. Or from a snake's perspective, a thick band of warm, dry and undisturbed habitat.

We take a path at random. The 'we' this time included another Stephen. I joke that he is a modern day St Patrick, with a tripod for a staff, Agnosticism for Catholicism and Oakley sunglasses; for he’s never seen an English snake (it is not my best joke). The closest he’d come was the day before, when we found a shed Adder skin on a heath in the west of Suffolk. The weather then was predominantly overcast, with a biting northerly wind. The skin was tucked in long grass like a piece of litter, stiff, clear and plasticy. A ragged, torn approximation of the Adder’s shape, wider at the head end than at the tail, and indented with the pattern of scales. A tactile ghost. The living animals remained a more traditional ghost, making their presence felt but never seen.
The wind swung easterly overnight; the clouds dissolving by late morning to a deep summer sky. Taste the air on your tongue. Coconut, pollen and salt on the breeze. It tasted good. It felt good weather for basking on a bank in the lee of the breeze. New returned Nightingales sang, tuning up their extraordinary vocal chords. A Dartford Warbler flicked across the heath, scrawny and barely visible amongst the fronds of heather. A Kestrel hovered, seeking out the same small rodents as the snakes. Green Tiger Beetles and Common Lizards scurried across the track and under the bracken, heather, brambles. My attention becomes diverted to the bumblebees and the miniscule moths buzzing around our feet, and the primitive looking black and scarlet wasps probing the sandy soil.

Ghosts: apparitions, to be sensed and not seen. Figures of fear, a fear that seems absurd in the light of day. A light too cold to reveal anything but their absence. We never found our Adder amongst the diversity of life on that heathland floor. The paranoid hesitancy now feels like wasted energy. Like being afraid of ghosts: why be scared of being bitten by a thing you can't find?

The English countryside is at times cripplingly, stultifyingly safe. No matter how vanishingly unlikely a bite is, Adders are a remnant of a more dangerous fauna, a more exciting fauna. A teasing folk memory that lurks out of sight but never quite out of mind. They require a respect, and remind us that man is not always the alpha animal. If we had more snakes it’s possible I’d be a herpetologist: the love of creatures intermingled with fear is a heady compound indeed. It helps you feel alive.

‘And so I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate;
A pettiness’

D H Lawrence


Monday, 7 April 2014

The Lesser Spotted

Rosy dawn.


Half remembered motions of getting up and dressed and heading to the tube and running for the doors and jumping on and realising it was the wrong train. Fifteen minute delay. The sun is up and burning through the haze when I eventually arrive. I shovel dry cereal from the packet into my mouth as I walk through suburban streets, hoping no one would see me.

Chiffchaffs sing and the dew in the grass sparkles. Old oaks emerge from the dissipating haze, raking at the jet contrails that scar the sky even at this time. The birdsong grew stronger: Blackbirds and Robins mostly, and other common species shading in. The sharp kicking call of a Great Spotted Woodpecker raised excitement, the sharp shriek of a parakeet took me by surprise. I'd forgotten I was in London. I was searching for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, a species that is quickly and worryingly disappearing throughout England but which remains in some of London’s wooded edges. It remains a secret though: I was told about this wood on the condition that I would tell no one else.

Magpies loitered like bored teenagers. Cackling and chasing each other, as if waiting for something, anything to happen. I loitered with them for two hours in that small wood between houses, quietly seeking out calling birds, unwilling to admit defeat until the sun rose above the canopy and the paths filled with dog walkers and the city roared into another sunny Saturday.

I may not have found what I was looking for in the wood, but I found something else. I found solitude in the city.

The single most exhausting thing about London is the lack of solitude. I can handle the hours I work and the hours I socialise but for a person predisposed to be out of the house; to be alone in some quiet place is the missing link. This is not a city built for introverts, for people like me who find chaos sapping and calm restorative. To be in the woods with the rising sun and surrounded by birds, not people, is the greatest simple pleasure I know.