Monday, October 13, 2008

Snails

If nests and shells were without significance, their image would not be so easily or imprudently synthesized.

Images that are too clear ... become generalities and for that reason block the imagination.
-- Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

I can't stop thinking about snails making their homes by rolling over and over in ever-hardening spit. In the mornings, I have allergies, and am often very clogged up. I'll lie in bed, tossing and turning, trying to find a way of resting in which I can breathe. My eyes water a little, and even if I sit up and blow my nose, it comes right back — a seemingly endless supply of snot welling up and threatening to seal off my nasal passages. Maybe I'm part snail. I wonder how the snails make it — what combination of vegetable matter or fungus, or whatever dissolves to create the sticky, thick slime that the snails use to roll up a carapace for themselves. And it's amazing to think that snot from a slug, rolled and dried, can form the delicately patterned, vaguely mathematic-seeming, thin thing of beauty — at once both a protection and camouflage from predators.

I was in Paris once. The particulars aren't important, but I had a lot of time, and more spending money than I knew what to do with. I am an adventurous eater. There, I discovered snail shells as a site for delicacies — little cups of sweet brown meat dowsed in liquid butter and herbs. Like perfect bowls of stew for gnomes. This is a different sort of beauty, but one no less compelling. Part of what is so interesting to me about this is the way that setting changes everything. I had no problem seeing what the waiter set down before me — a platter of tiny shells dribbled in butter sauce, a tiny fork — as food. And in that way, the lightly burnt shells, sweet-smelling and full of food are beautiful. But when I see snails in a garden, I do not think of them as edible in any way. But they are no less beautiful.

The other day, during a walk in the woods, I came across a slug, munching amiably on top of a mushroom. Feeling a little bold, I reached down and poked at the slug. They're surprisingly resistant — given that they look pretty much like bags of slime. They are strong, and do not move easily. When you touch a slug, it does not attack, or release some unpleasant smell to make you go away. It doesn't exactly ignore you either. Instead it stops eating, stops moving, and hunkers down, prepared to resist you to the best of its ability, but utterly unprotected. If I were a bird, it would be eaten already. How has a creature like this not been eaten to extinction?

For some reason I'm always predisposed to like snails. I will pick them up. Set them elsewhere. Let them crawl across the back of my hand. Slugs fill me with revulsion. In the Pacific Northwest, I saw banana slugs as big as a thumb and finger. I have pictures. Is it because they are exposed that I dislike them so much? Being sticky, it's harder to find a clean place to grasp them. They squirm and struggle in between your fingers. It seems like it would be difficult for them to keep clean, but given their habitat — rotting vegetation on the forest floor — maybe that's not a concern. A snail, however, can easily keep clean within its shell. I identify with the values of the snail. Being able to choose, I would spit myself a shell as well.

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