Hints to Adder-Seekers
W. H. Hudson

It has occurred to me that a few hints or wrinkles on the subject of adder-seeking might prove serviceable to some readers of this work, seeing that there are very many persons desirous of making the acquaintance of this rare and elusive reptile. They wish to know it—at a safe distance—in a state of Nature, in its own home, and have sought and have not found it. Quite frequently—about once or twice each week in summer—I am asked by someone for instructions in the matter.

One of my sweetest-tempered and most benevolent friends, who loves, he imagines, all things both great and small, pays the children of his village sixpence for every dead adder or grass-snake they bring him. He does not distinguish between the two ophidians. It is to be hoped that no such lover of God's creatures, including His "wild wormes in woods," will take advantage of these hints. Let him that finds an adder treat it properly, not without reverence, and his finding it will be to his gain in knowledge of that rare and personal kind which cannot be written or imparted in any way. That which we seek is not the viper, the subject of Fontana's monumental work, the little rope of clay or dead flesh in the British Museum, coiled in its bottle of spirits, and labelled "Vipera berus, Linn."

We seek the adder or nadder, that being venerated of old and generator of the sacred adder-stone of the Druids, and he dwells not in a jar of alcohol in the still shade and equable temperature of a museum. He is a lover of the sun, and must be sought for after his winter sleep in dry incult places, especially in open forest-lands, stony hill-sides, and furze-grown heaths and commons. After a little training the adder-seeker gets to know a viperish locality by its appearance. It is, however, not necessary to go out at random in search of a suitable hunting-ground, seeing that all places haunted by adders are well known to the people in the neighbourhood, who are only too ready to give the information required. There are no preservers of adders in the land, and so far as I know there has been but one person in England to preserve that beautiful and innocuous creature, the ringed-snake. Can anyone understand such a hobby or taste? Certainly not that friend of animals who pays sixpence for a dead snake. He, the snake-saviour, our unknown little Melampus, paid his village boys sixpence for every one they brought to him alive and uninjured, and to inspire confidence in them he would go with half a dozen large snakes in his coat pockets into the village school, and pulling his pets out, would play with and make the children handle them and take note of their beautiful form and motions.

This snake-lover possessed at Aldermaston one of the largest parks in southern England, abounding in oak trees so ancient and of so noble a growth that they are a wonder to all who see them. This vast park was his snake-preserve, and in moist green places, by running waters, he planted thickets for their shelter. But when his time came and he died, the son who succeeded him thought he would get more glory and sport by preserving pheasants, and accordingly engaged a little army of men and boys to extirpate the reptiles. There is nothing now to recall the dead man's "fantastic hobby" but a stained-glass window—I wish it had been done by a better artist—placed by his pious widow in the beautiful parish church, where you can see him among angelic figures surrounded by a company of birds and beasts and reptiles of many shapes and colours, and at the margins the familiar words, He prayeth best who loveth best, etc.

Let us return to our quest. The trouble is when you have arrived at the adder-haunt to find the adder. A man may spend years, even a lifetime, without seeing one. Some time ago I talked to an aged shepherd whose flock fed in a wide furze-grown hollow in the South Downs where adders were not uncommon. He told me he had been shepherding forty years in that place, and during the entire period had found three adders! If he had said three hundred I should not have been surprised. The man on the soil does not often see an adder, because for one thing he does not look for it, and still more because of the heavy boots he wears, with which he pounds the earth like a dray-horse with its ponderous iron-shod hoofs. Even men who walk lightly and wear light foot-gear make, as a rule, an amazing noise in walking over dry heathy places with brittle sticks and dry vegetable matter covering the ground. I have had persons thrust their company on me when going for a stroll on ground abounding in adders, and have known at once from their way of walking in an unaccustomed place that the quest would prove an idle one. Their lightest, most cautious tread would alarm and send into hiding every adder a dozen or twenty yards in advance of us.

In spring the adders are most alert and shyest. Later in the season some adders, as a rule the females, become sluggish and do not slip quickly away when approached; but in summer the herbage is apt to hide them, and they lie more in the shade than in March, April, and the early part of May. In spring you must go alone and softly, but you need not fear to whistle and sing, or even to shout, for the adder is deaf and cannot hear you; on the other hand, his body is sensitive in an extraordinary degree to earth vibrations, and the ordinary tread of even a very light man will disturb him at a distance of fifteen or twenty yards. That sense of the adder, which has no special organ yet may serve better than vision, hearing, smell, and touch together, is of the greatest importance to it, since to a creature that lies and progresses prone on the ground and has a long brittle backbone, the heavy mammalian foot is one of the greatest dangers to its life.

Not only must the seeker go softly, but he must have a quick-seeing, ever-searching eye, and behind the eye a mind intent on the object. The sharpest sight is useless if he falls to thinking of something else, since it is not possible for him to be in two places at once. To empty the mind as in crystal-gazing is a good plan, but if it cannot be emptied, if thought will not rest still, it must be occupied with adders and nothing else. The exercise and discipline is interesting even if we find no adders; it reveals in swift flickering glimpses a vanished experience or state of the primitive mind—the mind which, like that of the inferior animals, is a polished mirror, undimmed by speculation, in which the extraneous world is vividly reflected. If the adder quest goes on for days, it is still best to preserve the mood, to think of adders all day, and when asleep to dream of them. The dreams, I have found, are of two sorts—pleasant and unpleasant. In the former we are the happy first finders of the loveliest and most singular serpents ever looked upon; in the second we unwittingly go up barefooted into a place from which we cannot escape, a vast flat region extending to the horizon, littered with adders. We have lifted a foot and don't know where to set it, for there is not one square foot of ground which is not already occupied by an adder coiled in readiness to strike.

In adder-seeking, the main thing is to find your adder without disturbing it, so as to be able to stand near and watch it lying quiescent in the sun. The best plan is to come almost to a stop as soon as the creature has been caught sight of, then to advance so slowly and stealthily as to appear stationary, for the adder although unalarmed is, I believe, always conscious of your presence. In this way you may approach to within two or three yards, or nearer, and remain a long time regarding it.

But what is the seeker to do if, after long searching, he discovers his adder already in retreat, and knows that in two or three seconds it will vanish from his sight? As a rule, the person who sees an adder gliding from him aims a blow at it with his stick so as not to lose it. Now to kill your adder is to lose it. It is true you will have something to show for it, or something of it which is left in your hands, and which, if you feel disposed, you may put in a glass jar and label "Vipera berus." But this would not be an adder. Must we then never kill an adder? That is a question I do not undertake to answer, but I can say that if we are seeking after knowledge, or something we call knowledge because it is a convenient word and can be made to cover many things it would be difficult to name, then to kill is no profit, but, on the contrary, a distinct loss. Fontana dissected forty thousand adders in his long and busy day, but if there is anything we want to know about the adder beyond the number of scales on the integument, and the number, shape, and size of the bones in the dead coil, he and the innumerable ophiologists and herpetologists who came after him are unable to tell us. We can read about the scales and bones in a thousand books. We want to know more about the living thing, even about its common life habits. It has not yet been settled whether or not the female adder swallows its young, not, like the fer-de-lance, to digest them in her stomach, but to save their threatened lives. It is true that many persons have, during the last half-century, witnessed the thing and have described what they saw in the Zoologist, Land and Water, Field and other journals; nevertheless the compilers of our natural histories regard the case as not yet proved beyond a doubt.

Here, then, we have one of several questions which can only be answered by field-naturalists who abstain from killing. But a better reason for not killing may be given than this desire to discover a new fact—the mere satisfying of a mental curiosity. I know good naturalists who have come to hate the very sight of a gun, simply because that useful instrument has become associated in their case with the thought and the memory of the degrading or disturbing effect on the mind of killing the creatures we love, whose secrets we wish to find out.

Alas! it took me a long time to discover the advantages of not killing. The following account of killing an adder—the last time I did such a thing—may serve to throw a little light on the question. Adders were common at a place where I was staying at a farm in the New Forest, but I had never seen one near the house until one sultry afternoon in July, when coming into a path which led from the farm-yard into and through a hazel copse, I came upon one lying in the middle of the path. It was a large adder, so sluggish that it made no attempt to escape, but turned and struck at me when I approached it. I thought of the little children, for this was the very spot where they came to play and hunt for fowls' eggs every afternoon; the adder, if left there, might be a danger to them; it was necessary either to kill or remove it. Then it occurred to me that to remove it would be useless, since if the creature's place was there, it would infallibly return to it from any distance. The homing instinct is strong in the adder and in most serpents. And so to end the matter I killed and buried it, and went on my way. My way was through the copse and over a fence and ditch on the other side, and I was no sooner over the ditch than I beheld a second adder, bigger than the last and just as sluggish. It was, however, not strange, as in July the female adder is often like that, especially in sultry thunderous weather. I teased it to make it move away, then picked it up to examine it, after which I released it and watched it gliding slowly away into the shadow of the bushes. And, watching it, I became conscious of a change in my mental attitude towards the living things that were so much to me, my chief happiness having always been in observing their ways. The curiosity was not diminished, but the feeling that had gone with it for a very long time past was changed to what it had been when I was sportsman and collector, always killing things. The serpent gliding away before me was nothing but a worm with poison fangs in its head and a dangerous habit of striking at unwary legs—a creature to be crushed with the heel and no more thought about. I had lost something precious, not, I should say, in any ethical sense, seeing that we are in a world where we must kill to live, but valuable in my special case, to me as a field-naturalist. Abstention from killing had made me a better observer and a happier being, on account of the new or different feeling towards animal life which it had engendered. And what was this new feeling—wherein did it differ from the old of my shooting and collecting days, seeing that since childhood I had always had the same intense interest in all wild life? The power, beauty, and grace of the wild creature, its perfect harmony in nature, the exquisite correspondence between organism, form and faculties, and the environment, with the plasticity and intelligence for the readjustment of the vital machinery, daily, hourly, momentarily, to meet all changes in the conditions, all contingencies; and thus, amidst perpetual mutations and conflict with hostile and destructive forces, to perpetuate a form, a type, a species for thousands and millions of years! —all this was always present to my mind; yet even so it was but a lesser element in the complete feeling. The main thing was the wonderfulness and eternal mystery of life itself; this formative, informing energy—this flame that burns in and shines through the case, the habit, which in lighting another dies, and albeit dying yet endures for ever; and the sense, too, that this flame of life was one, and of my kinship with it in all its appearances, in all organic shapes, however different from the human. Nay, the very fact that the forms were unhuman but served to heighten the interest;—the roe-deer, the leopard and wild horse, the swallow cleaving the air, the butterfly toying with a flower, and the dragonfly dreaming on the river; the monster whale, the silver flying-fish, and the nautilus with rose- and purple-tinted sails spread to the wind.

Happily for me the loss of this sense and feeling was but a temporary one, and was recovered in the course of the next two days, which I spent in the woods and on the adjacent boggy heath, finding many adders and snakes, also young birds and various other creatures which I handled and played with, and I could afford once more to laugh at those who laughed at or were annoyed with me on account of my fantastic notions about animals. My next great adventure with an adder, which came a year later, gave me so good a laugh that I am tempted to go further with this digression to give an account of it.

The adventure was the finding of my biggest adder. It was in a tract of ground overgrown with furze and thorn, at a spot not far from the turnpike road that runs from Salisbury to Blandford. Having discovered that this spot, with an area of several hundred acres, teemed with interesting wild life, I made it a haunt for several weeks. I soon found out that it was a valuable game preserve and that the keeper had strict orders from the shooting tenant not to allow any person on the land. However, I approached him in the proper way, and he left me to enjoy myself in my own fashion.

Never had I seen adders so abundant as at this spot, yet the keeper assured me that he had been trying for years to extirpate them, and often killed as many as half a dozen in a day.

One morning, near the end of June, I found my big adder, and picking it up, held it suspended by the tip of its tail for nearly half an hour, until, exhausted with its vain wriggling, it allowed itself to hang limp and straight. Then I got out my tape-measure and set about the difficult task of getting the exact length; but the adder would not have it, for invariably when the tape was dropped at its side it drew itself up into a series of curves and defeated me. Tired of the long business, I set it down at length and stunned it with a rap on its head with my stick, then setting the tape on its flat head and pressing it with my thumb, I pulled the body straight and succeeded in getting the exact length. It was twenty-eight inches. The biggest adder I had hitherto found was twenty-five and a half; this was in the New Forest, in the wildest part, where it is most thinly inhabited and adders are most abundant. None of the other biggest adders I had measured before and since exceeded twenty-four inches.

We see that the adder, when we come to measure it, is not a big snake; it looks bigger than it is, partly on account of its strange conspicuous colouring, with the zigzag shape of the band, and its reputation as a dangerous serpent; this makes an adder two feet long look actually bigger than the grass-snake of three feet—the size to which this snake usually grows.

In a minute or two my adder recovered from the effects of the tap on his head and was permitted to glide away into the furze bushes. And leaving the spot I went on, but had not gone forty yards before catching sight of another adder lying coiled up. I stopped to look at it, then slowly advanced to within about five feet of it, and there remained standing still, just to see whether or not my presence so close to it would affect it in any way. Presently, hearing a shout, I looked up and saw two horsemen coming up over the down in front of me. They pulled up and sat staring down at me—a big man on a big horse, and a rather small man on a small horse. The big man was the shooting tenant, and the shout was evidently meant for me, but I took no notice. I kept my eyes on my adder, and soon the two horsemen came down at a gallop to me, and of course, before they were fifty yards from me, the thunder of the hoofs had sent the creature into hiding. Sitting on their horses they stared in angry silence at me, and finding I had to speak first, I apologised for being in the preserve, and said the keeper, knowing me to be a harmless naturalist, had given me permission to come there to find a flower I was interested in—also an adder. What, he demanded, did I want with adders? Just to see them, I said; I had found one and was watching it when his approach had driven it away. I then added that adders were exceedingly abundant on this land of his, that I had just found and measured one which was twenty-eight inches long—the biggest adder I had ever found.

"Where is it!—let's see it!" shouted both men, and I had to tell them that I had released it, and it had gone into a bush about forty yards from where we stood.

They stared at me, then exchanged glances, then the big man asked me if I meant what I had said—if I had actually caught a big adder only to release it unharmed?

That, I said, was what I had done.

"Then you did wrong," almost yelled the second man. "To catch and release an adder that might bite and kill someone any day—I consider it a crime."

I laughed and said I didn't mind being a criminal in that way, and I also thought people greatly exaggerated the danger of adder bites.

"You are wrong again!" he yelled, quite in a temper now. "As a naturalist, you ought to know better. Let me tell you that last summer I nearly lost my little son through an adder bite. He was in the Isle of Wight with his nurse, and trod on the thing and was bitten on the leg. For a whole day his life was trembling in the balance, and you dare to tell me that adders are not a danger!"

I apologised for having made light of the subject. He was right and I was wrong. But I couldn't explain to him why I could not kill adders—or anything else.

Let us now return to the adder-seeker who has unwittingly disturbed the adder he has found, and who sees it about to vanish into the brake. He has been waiting all this time to know what to do in such a case. He must let it vanish, and comfort himself with the thought that he has discovered its haunt and may re-find it another day, especially if he is so fortunate as to scare it from its favourite bed on which it is accustomed to lie sunning itself at certain hours each day until the progress of the season will make it too warm or otherwise unsuitable, when the old basking-place will be changed for a new one. But should he not be satisfied to lose sight of the adder immediately after discovering it, he must be provided with some simple contrivance for its capture.

My plan, which cannot be recommended to timid persons liable in moments of excitement to get flustered and awkward, is to catch the retreating adder quickly by the tail, which is a perfectly safe proceeding if there is no blundering, since the creature when going from you is not in a position to strike.

I confess I am always a little reluctant to offer such an indignity to the adder as grasping and holding it up, enraged and impotent, by the tail, although such treatment may be to its advantage in the end. We have a naturalist in England who picks up every adder he finds and pinches its tail before releasing it, just to teach it caution. The poor creeping thing with a zigzag band on its back to advertise its dangerous character has of all creatures the fewest friends among men. My sole object in picking up an adder by the tail is to be able to look at its under-surface, which is often the most beautiful part. As a rule the colour is deep blue, but it varies; the darkest specimens being blue-black or even quite black, while the exceedingly rare light blue is too beautiful for words. Occasionally we find an adder with the belly-plates of the same ground colour, a dull or pale straw yellow, as the upper part of the body, with the dark blue colour in broken spots and dots and lines inscribed on it. These markings in some cases resemble written characters, and it was said of old that they formed the words:

 

If I could hear as well as see,
No man of life would master me.

 

Probably these letter-like markings on the creature's belly, like the minute black lines, resembling writing, on the pale bark of the holly tree, suggested some other more important meaning to the priests of an ancient cult, and gave the adder a peculiarly sacred character.

To conclude, let me relate here how I once had to congratulate myself on having hurriedly snatched at and captured an adder at the moment of seeing it, and of its attempted escape. I was cautiously strolling along, hoping to see some good thing, in a copse in private grounds in the New Forest, a place abounding in adders and other interesting creatures. Night-jars were common there, and by-and-by one rose almost at my feet over the roots of an oak tree, and casting my eyes down at the spot from which it had risen, I spied a large adder, which, alarmed either at my step or the sudden flight of the bird, was gliding quickly away over the bed of old dry bleached leaves to its refuge at the roots of the tree. Oddly enough, it was not the first occasion on which I had come upon a night-jar and adder dozing peacefully side by side. It was a beautiful adder of a rich tawny yellow hue, with an intensely black broad zigzag mark, and as there was no time to lose, I dashed at and managed to catch it; then holding it up by the tail, what was my surprise and delight at finding its under-surface of a colour or "shade" I had never previously seen—the lovely blue I have mentioned. There was no break in the colour; every belly-plate from the neck to the tip of the tail was of a uniform exquisite turquoise blue, or considering that turquoise blues vary in depth and purity, it would be more exact to describe the colour as most like that of the forget-me-not, but being enamelled, it reminded me rather of the most exquisite blue one has seen on some priceless piece of old Chinese pottery. I think that if some famous aged artist of the great period, a worshipper of colour whose life had been spent in the long endeavour to capture and make permanent the most exquisite fleeting tints in Nature, had seen the blue on that adder he would have been overcome at the same time with rapture and despair. And I think, too, that if Mother Nature in turning out this ophidian had muddled things, as she is apt to do occasionally, and had reversed the position of the colours, putting the tawny yellow and black zigzag band on the belly and the blue above, the sight of the creature would have given rise to a New Forest myth. It would have been spread abroad that an angelic being had appeared in those parts in the form of a serpent but in its natural celestial colour.

After keeping it a long time in my hand, I released it reluctantly, and saw it steal away into the cavity at the roots of the oak. Here was its home, and I fondly hoped to see it again many times. But it was not there when I called on many successive days—neither serpent nor night-jar; but though we three shall meet no more, I remember the finding of that adder as one of the loveliest experiences I have met with during all the years I have spent in conversing with wild animals.