I don’t care for snakes but, like many, I am fascinated by them. I’m sure this is something deeply primal. Snakes equal danger but you are rooted to the spot watching them. The latest in a series of snake encounters prompted me to find out more about them.
The two types of snake prevalent down here are Couleuvres (grass snakes) and Vipères (adders). The former are not venomous, the latter are.
I have never seen an adder here, although we have while walking in the Auvergne. Fortunately, the SF was walking in front along a narrow path. He suddenly stopped dead. Coiled up in a sunny spot right in the middle of the path was a sleeping adder. I wasn’t wearing my glasses and would probably have kicked it thinking it was a stone. Giving it a wide berth, we inched past. As my shadow fell across it, the snake shot away into the undergrowth.
According to my book, adders can attain up to 80 centimetres in length and give birth to live young, which are already 15-20 centimetres long.
Grass snakes are very common here. There are two sorts – la couleuvre lisse, which I’ve never seen, and the larger couleuvre à collier. The latter have a yellow band around their necks. Although mostly grey or blackish, at certain times of year they are a brighter green-yellow. They can attain up to two metres in length and lay eggs.
My book says they like living near water and you often see them swimming in streams and rivers. We have very little water around here and yet they live and breed here. They are partial to toads, frogs and water insects. Croaking frogs quickly vanish into the depths when they see one coming.
A colloquial expression, “Avaler des couleuvres” means to accept everything you are told without question. An earlier definition is to swallow insults or put up with a situation without being able to protest. Apparently the origin stems from the fraudulent practice of adding couleuvres to a dish of eels.
My first encounter with one was when house hunting down here more than 15 years ago. We looked at a mill house, in which a stream – really – ran through the back of a downstairs bedroom. On the French windows a notice read, “Please keep the curtains shut to stop the snakes coming in.” The estate agent politely stood aside as I went out through the front door – to come face to face with an enormous snake. The confrontation lasted only a split second before it whisked off into a hole in the rocks.
That was the biggest one I have seen in the flesh. We didn’t buy that house.
Over the years, we have had less dramatic meetings with them. Most often you see them zigzagging across the road. Sometimes they don’t make it in time. A particularly unlucky one didn’t get out of the way of the hay cutter when Philippe was cutting the field behind us.
We’ve had live encounters, too. A small one got into the kitchen once and had to be escorted out with some difficulty, since it kept slithering under the furniture. Last autumn, we watched a large one shimmying across the roof in the sunshine before sliding off the edge and flopping into my passion flower. Last week, a young couleuvre popped out of a pot of mint by the kitchen door, glided across my foot and disappeared under the rosemary bush.
I am always impressed by the bravery of the small couleuvres. We once hooked one out of the swimming pool filter and gently put it on the surrounding slabs in the sun. It reared up and bared its teeth at us. I saw another one do the same to the cat, who was warily circling it. Alas, if he catches one he usually mortally wounds it and then gets bored. This one was lucky: we picked it up on a stick and flung it into the next door field, much to the cat’s consternation. He spent hours looking for it in the wrong place.
So snakes are part of our way of life down here. I would prefer it if they didn’t coil up in my plant pots but I suppose they do no harm, except to give us the occasional fright.
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