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.
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
And I have something to expiate;
D H Lawrence