Snakes, wasps and spiders...Anna Pavord is enchanted and mystified by the residents of her garden

At last I've seen it, the snake that, over the past two seasons, has left perfect casts of itself in the garden. The skins, dry and crisp, were each about 130cm long, rounded like long sausages, each scale perfectly overlapped on the next. You could see where the eyes fitted in, where the mouth had been. They were light, translucent, fabulously beautiful things. But how could I have been sharing the garden with a creature four feet long and never seen it?

Then on a sunny evening a few weeks ago, I crossed the yard to the house. In one suspended moment, I saw the snake basking on the warm stones in front of the door. The moment didn't last long enough. With amazing speed, it slid under the gate and disappeared into some dry leaves. It went diagonally like an African sidewinder, which was a surprise.

I've replayed that moment often. I'm mad about snakes, but they've had a sad time with us humans and have every reason to keep themselves hidden. All of my best snake moments have been in South America, but they are as persecuted there as they are with us. The worst episode was at a so-called "eco-lodge" on a tributary of the Amazon. On our way by dugout canoe to this place, I'd had some mesmerising encounters with snakes, watching them twist through the water, then without missing a beat, climb straight up the trunk of a tree on the water's edge, brilliantly camouflaged in both elements. When I stepped out at the landing stage of the lodge, four of these beautiful creatures were hanging dead on a wire, pegged out like washing. "What happened?" I asked. "We kill all snakes," said the American manager. "The bird-watchers insist on it. They don't like them." We left on the next available dugout.

The snake in our garden is a grass snake, the biggest of British snakes, but completely harmless. It's a soft greyish-green, paler on the underside, dappled with black on top. How does it spend its days, I wonder? Where does it go? Grass snakes like ponds and marshes where they can get plenty of frogs. But we don't have a pond and the stream below in the valley is not ideal frog territory. We have good compost heaps though, which is where they like to lay their eggs.

I reckon I was lucky to get even my few seconds with the grass snake. In Complete British Animals (Collins paperback £14.99), Paul Sterry explains that they constantly taste the air with their forked tongues. The scents they pick up pass through filters in their mouths and this is how they build up a picture of what is going on around them, where possible prey might be. I bet the snake had smelt (or "tasted") me long before I saw him.

Perhaps now you are expecting me to give ten top tips for making a snake-friendly garden. Sorry. No. I don't share the general belief that we, as humans, are perfectly equipped to arrange the lives of other wild things. Plants, on their own, give me enough surprises. Animals are even more complicated to understand. And though I can learn all about the way a grass snake functions, its diet, its usual habitat, these are just bits, just facts. The vast, inter-related sequence of events that has kept it here these last two years, the big picture, is what matters. And this is never clear.

If we are interested in wildlife, it's likely to be one particular aspect of it: birds (probably), butterflies, the prettier things. Because we've separated ourselves away from the natural world, we separate other things too. But they, left to themselves, stitch themselves together into a woven whole. We're dangerous because we are arrogant enough to think that we understand its complexity.

Encounters in our garden with damselflies, stag beetles, woodpeckers, ravens, slow worms, elephant hawk moths, deer, badgers, toads give me great pleasure, but the best thing I can do for them is stay out of their way. What is the point of luring birds to a birdtable only to be killed by the neighbour's cat? But even if we can't understand what all these wild things are looking for, we can at least ensure a good spread of possibilities in our gardens.

Dead wood somewhere nearby must have persuaded the wasps to build a nest in the shed where our freezer lives. When I first noticed it, on the beam above the freezer, it was smaller than a bantam's egg. Now it's about the size of a celeriac, made from wood chewed up with saliva to make a kind of paper, laid down in beautifully modulated stripes of cream and buff.

It's a designer's dream, a gorgeous colour and shape, made in overlapping petals. But since the wasps started to build, an energetic spider has made a huge hammock web that stretches from the nest right across to the next beam. The wasps aren't as direct as, say, the swallows in the way they come and go from their headquarters, so quite often they get caught in the web.

They are strong enough to escape, but not without a lot of effort. Why, since they are clever enough, co-ordinated enough to build so beautifully, don't they send out a work party to cut the web away from the nest? Is there some benefit in having the spider close by? There's definitely a benefit to gardeners in having the wasps about, as they feed chewed-up insects to their young. Insects are critical for the swallows too, who for the last couple of years have chosen to nest on top of our electricity meter. For insects, you need oak trees. For oak trees you need deep, retentive soil. For the right soil you need a particular geology and climate. Lord! My head's swimming. I'm going weeding.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own