Whether it is a shady, treacherous and conniving human or an “ectothermic, amniote vertebrate covered in overlapping scales,” I don’t like coming across snakes in the grass. With the former, they are emotional work but I feel adequately equipped to identify. The latter is trickier. I lack confidence in comfortably telling apart those which are poisonous and those which are not.
I’ve been thinking about snakes lately. Not only is it the time of the year when they are most likely to be spotted, but our electrician friend, who has just finished wiring in the room we are currently renovating, once famously referred to the electrics in our house as “a snake’s wedding.” Without ever hearing this phrase before, I knew at once it was electrician-code-terminology representing a tangled mess. Slowly, we are sorting it out and this next project has enabled us to run wiring in safer ways, dedicate an outlet exclusively for the boiler, add a few outlets rather than running extension cords throughout the room and hide all the wires which previously snaked visibly hither and yon across beams. I like to think we’ve become wedding crashers.
So snakes are a bit on the brain.
Growing up in Ohio, I had to be on the look out for Copperheads and Water Moccasins (also known as Cottonmouths), which are the only poisonous water snakes in North America. Both of these share the distinction of being venomous pit vipers, just like a rattlesnake, which means they can detect heat in some pitted place on their faces, located between their little beady snake eyes, enabling them to strike with accuracy the source of the heat, usually their prey. These snakes were around where I grew up and this sort of knowledge leaves an impression on a young mind and certainly informed my way in the world. When younger I would routinely make loud and deliberate sounds whenever approaching a woodpile or riverbank. Sunny rocks, dark cool corners around trees in the woods, and piles of leaves all held a potential nest of lethal slithering agents of doom as far as I was concerned. I have not shaken the memory of being thrown into a lake with my friend Betty only to discover hanging above us in the tree branches were hundreds of newly hatched snakes. Never before have two women flown out of water faster!
So, imagine my joy and new lease on life when moving to England. These green and pleasant lands are a place where we have just one native poisonous snake, the Adder. Yes, it is poisonous, but it hardly packs the same punch as a Black Mamba. Roger and I saw one of these while in South Africa and I remained convinced it would find its way into our car even though we had driven off in the opposite direction. Fear and a vivid imagination can be powerful forces.
Inexplicably, I am determined to spot an Adder on Dartmoor. With the sun shining and too many projects beckoning, I decide to set out in search of an Adder. For some, this might be a favourite spring pastime, akin to noting the opening of tree leaves as a seasonal marker. For me, it feels more like a test of courage. Confronting childhood fears of snakes.
Knowledge is power and so bearing in mind a few essential facts hopefully will help off-set my low grade dread about this adventure. Firstly, while Adders are the only venomous snake native to Britain, they are not aggressive. They typically use their venom only as a defense if they are caught (I won’t be doing that) or stepped upon (I really hope to not be doing that!). Adders are also notoriously difficult to find, being quick to hide when they become aware of something new (me) in their environment. Most importantly, no one has died from an Adder bite in Britain for over twenty years! The worst affects are nausea and drowsiness, not dissimilar from being over-served some red wine during an evening out with friends.
Armed with these simple facts and wearing sturdy boots, I make my way to Wistman’s Wood, just a short hike away from our home. Legend has it that Wistman’s Wood is home to a great many spooky and scary things, including nests of Adders who are said to slither in and among the mossy rocks. There could be truth to this bit of lore as Dartmoor is a popular place for Adders. They tend to like areas of rough, open countryside with a little bit of woodland, making this an ideal destination.
No matter how much I’d like to see an Adder, I must first learn to suppress the montage of scary-snake-movie images (Snakes on a Plane; Indiana Jones; or Anaconda to name a few) and instead try to imagine myself an early traveler to these Woods, taking a break on a stone to feel the sunshine upon my face while listening to a cuckoo calling in the distance. I must remind myself, if I were such a person, I would feel thrilled to see an Adder basking in the sun. On this walk, I will take my time to pause, enjoying the play of light, the sounds of the birds, the breeze upon my skin, and the smell of an impending afternoon rain shower, wondering whether I will discover something new. Is this outing really about seeing an Adder? Perhaps. Then again, it simply may be about staying open to new possibilities. Walking this familiar path reminds me the real snake in the grass is fear, which roots all of us in familiar places, preventing the unanticipated discovery of something new.