The general rule of thumb in my part of the world, is that weather permitting, the adders will start to emerge from hibernation within a fortnight of Valentine’s day. I’ve found this to be true in each of the years I’ve been observing them, bar 2018 when the Beast from the East threw things out of kilter somewhat.
Following the local adders became an integral part of my life several years ago when I was a young woman. I became completely captivated by them. To the present day, no matter how many times I see this species, I find it just as enthralling as the electrifying moment I first clapped eyes on it. It was a warm September evening when two large females unexpectedly crawled by within whiskers of my feet. That moment almost seems too dreamlike to be real now, too fleeting. One zigzagged ribbon followed by the other, vanishing into obscurity. I was hooked. They were like medicine.
The following Spring, something happened to me, and the adders were symbolic of that. I began to stir from the apathy I felt towards my life. I simply started to bore of feeling hurt and wallowing in my broken, tattered heart. I wanted to start living. This sense of renewal was buoyed by my having a car for the first time. Being able to go wherever I pleased whenever I liked was a golden novelty, and I revelled in the new freedom.
And so on a warm February day several years ago, I came out of hibernation along with the vipers. And there marked a pivotal time in my life.
I felt a strange optimism that morning, and headed up onto the meadow. I padded around the edges of thickets with soft rolling footsteps, creeping like a bittern peering for eels. Then my heart leapt, as I happened upon a perfect viperine coil, hugged by rank grasses at the edge of a blackthorn bush. I discreetly sat myself down beside it at a few feet away, studiously immersed in this new found enigmatic world of cold blooded animals. He knew I was there, and we simply basked together, in mutual respect and curiosity.
Over the ensuing weeks of that Spring, I spent days up there combing the place for them. I found many more. I came to recognise individuals by knowing their unique head markings. I learned that the spot where I found the first of the season was an emergence site; other individuals emerged from around the thicket, meaning there was a hibernaculum there. I carried out formal surveys of them, there and elsewhere around the county. I came to make friends who also loved the adder, on the common. I even met the love of my life because of them, and our first ‘date’ was spent creeping around searching for them.
Every year since then, no matter what has been going on in my life, I’ve been ‘checking’ on the local population at various points in the reptile season. I developed a huge sense of personal custodianship over them, which many people may find eccentric. Even when I took on land management roles of nature reserves which held populations of adders, my ‘home’ adders were always the ones that were ‘mine’, rather than the ones that I ‘catered for’ at work.
This sense of guardianship of course brought with it some worry, like a parent worries for their children long after they’ve grown up.
Adders in the UK and parts of wider Europe are in peril. I began to ‘realise’ this on a more personal level a couple of years ago when I acknowledged that the changes in my records, sightings and encounters with them were making me uneasy. The following notion is bordering on romantic of me to cogitate on, but I still find it compelling.
Theory has it, that women are more in tune with reptiles than men are. Apparently this is particularly the case at certain times during a woman’s cycle, when a woman can spot or detect snakes quicker than a person typically would on average. This is supposedly due to the influence of hormones, bringing about a heightened ability to detect ‘threats’ to the foetus in utero. In all mammals, nature dictates that for the preservation and continuation of life, a carrying mother must be able to protect her charge in every way possible. Perhaps there is grounding in this; I couldn’t say for sure, since I am only aware of one study (from Nobuo Masataka of Japan’s Kyoto University) on the theory.
I can only offer my own experience, in response to that information. I am highly adept at locating lizards and snakes. Ever since I knew where to look for them, I could often find them quicker than my male counterparts could. In spite of having a hearing impairment and being short sighted, I can detect an animal and often identify which it is, by the flash of sound it makes, fleeing through the undergrowth. I can often tell whether I’m going to have a productive time searching or not. It could all be bollocks for all I know (I don’t think it is, however). And of course, I could in fact simply have seriously badass fieldcraft skills, but my perrenial scatter-brain and clumsiness convinces me otherwise, frankly. Who really knows? Maybe vipers and women are mysterious in exact equal measure.
Anyway, if factual, this feminine serpentine-sensing means that in sweet irony, this defence mechanism works in reverse in women like me, who seek – rather – than avoid reptiles. I’m not a maternal person, but that doesn’t alter the fact that I have the same biological mechanisms as any female. I can, perhaps turn this to my advantage in field-herping. The feminist beauty of this? It is a defiant victory-fingers-up at the society-bound expectation of all women to want to birth babies. I don’t want to bear life, but I want all life to thrive. I am a woman, and it is in my nature to nurture. All women may well have a ‘biological clock’ in the most basic sense, but it ticks in different ways for different individuals. Such is my theory.
Long live the viper, for she is one and the same as me, in a different body. She symbolises life, survival and feminity in all forms.