augury doggerel

Sunday, April 28, 2002


The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearl'd;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven�
All's right with the world!

� Robert Browning

The snails are back this spring and I am again wondering what to do about them. Or me.

There were no snails where I grew up, but every child knew them from pictures. We knew that the snail carries its home on its back and is the incarnation of slowness and laziness. The snail was a sign. (The snail is also a hermaphrodite, and many species impale their lovers with darts, but we didn�t cover these interesting aspects of the snail in elementary school.)

Now, in spring, I don�t go a day without seeing real snails, big and brown, clinging to the trees, hiding in the grass, wiggling their tentacles, and moving out as slowly as ships on the horizon, alone across the prairies between trees.

I am by training and inclination an engineer, but a lapsed one. I try � I have to try � to resist tinkering with everything that doesn't seem quite right. The snail, however, presents me with a problem I cannot easily ignore.

When a snail sets out, building its own smooth road as it passes, it is working energetically, anything but lazy, but working to a different clock. Its prey is the leaf, and the snail has succeeded all these years by being able to look like a stone, slip gracefully under grass, and outrun a tendril�s growth. It is a perfection in its world.

But we have diced the snail�s territory with treeless paths and hot sidewalks a snail-mile wide. A snail out in the open, with its trail shining in the sun, can in a second be plucked from life by the lightning beasts of the third dimension.

Some Newton among snails might someday realize that snails in convoy would enjoy the ease of coasting on the leader�s trail, like migrating geese sharing slipstreams, and thus be able to make an easy dash, so to speak, across sidewalks. But such a snail genius would also see the disadvantages of such a scheme: they would arrive together and have to share leaves, and their caravan, however swift, might be an even easier target for predators.

So what if a benevolent being came across a stranded snail? Should this being bend down and move the snail to where it seems to be going? This is my dilemma almost every morning on the way to work these days.

I should let the birds have their share. I should let today�s natural selection � another person�s foot or the wheel of a car � save future snails by breeding in an aversion to sidewalks or the ability to look like discarded gum. And how do I know the snail isn�t just after a tan? I should trust the patient architect, the coil in the coil.

But a supposedly higher being gives up something of that supposed elevation if it ignores suffering it can prevent. So I move them.

Snail story that doesn't belong anywhere:

When the kid and her mother and I were out for a walk, back when the kid was shorter than the long wet grass, we each held and talked to a snail. Then I, because I am foolish, pretended to pop mine into my mouth like a candy. A second later, the kid tossed her snail into her mouth and kept it there just long enough to see my jaw drop and my eyes bulge. I�m glad I didn�t pretend to chew.


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