Country diary: appreciating the minutiae of a lizard’s life

Panorama of a city business district with office buildings and skyscrapers and superimposed data, charts and diagrams related to stock market, currency exchange and global finance. Blue line graphs with numbers and exchange rates, candlestick charts and financial figures fill the image with a glowing light. Sunset light.

The perimeter to the old reservoir at Lightwood is outlined by a semi-circular wooden fence and in late summer it acquires a secondary purpose as the favourite sunbathing spot for the area’s common lizards. Some days there can be more than a dozen dotted along the broad-topped beams.

There are many pleasures to common lizards. For one, they have such gloriously varied colours, with black, chocolate, toffee or mustard longitudinal stripes etched along bodies of grey, beige, sometimes almost mossy green and rich caramel. Another pleasure earlier in summer is to watch the barrel-bellied gravid females warming their unborn embryos, which emerge directly as babies rather than as eggs (hence the species’ old name, viviparous lizard).

Perhaps the main delight of lizard watching flows from their almost unbelievable tameness. I keep a shortlist of internal guidelines: no sudden moves; no physical contact – not even with your shadow – they are, after all, sunbathing; and don’t intrude on their independence. If you acquire a zen-like slowness, these quick-limbed masters of the lightning dash will allow you to home in with a magnifying lens or a camera until they are a hair’s-breadth away.

At such proximity you can appreciate the minutiae of a lizard’s life: the quaking bellows of its breathing, the way the scales have a high polish and glisten individually in the sun and, as their owners move, these thousands of raised gem-like structures sometimes wreath the beast in an aura of shining light. A bonus is that you occasionally lose a sense of their proper size and the flat scales encircling the lizard’s legs can momentarily suggest the greave-like plates of armour on a big croc or, better still, a dinosaur.

They can bring to mind a big croc or a dinosaur.

All of this is wonderful but there is a final pleasure that is largely existential. It is the sense of apparent trust shown by another wild vertebrate. Our species’ status as the top global predator has cordoned us off in a forcefield of dread and loneliness that repels almost every life form. How kind are these cold-blooded neighbours to allow me to escape its boundary, if only for an hour.


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