An Ordinary Snail

snail in bowl 2 may 2015

This may look like an ordinary snail but that spiral is really a time vortex. Seeing it took me back in time to when we first moved here.

We had trees and a green lawn but in the vestigial gardening areas all I could see was cracked clay and ancient crinums flopping to the ground. I thought they were drama queens until I looked closely at them in the morning light. They were covered in snails. If I ran my hand along a leaf by the end of the journey that hand would be full of little shells. Not exactly a gardener’s paradise.

I went a little mad. Every morning I woke up early with one goal in mind: to remove the snails. I collected buckets and buckets of snails. Some I squished. (The shells were more delicate than I imagined — more like eggshell than rock). Some I threw to the road for the birds to eat or tires to smash. I did this every day until one day there were no snails. “My work here is done,” I smugly thought.

But, it was a bad thing to do. There is no need to console me and tell me that any gardener would do the same. I know my guilt. It is true that the system was out of balance — the sheer numbers of snails alone was a clear signal but I got the message all wrong.


Since then I think I have learned more about how to read the land. I thought then that it was of vital importance to save the crinums. I saw them as heritage plants — holdovers from a more civilized time. They were but if I were to say that phrase today — especially with that word ‘civilized’ included my tone of voice would sound completely different.

The snails were there to clean up the mess that successive people had left behind. The crinums were under siege but the system wasn’t collapsing. At all. The clean up crew was there to bulldoze through the last of the introduced species to properly develop the area.

What do snails do? Do they have any worth? Snails are herbivores — mostly — and I suppose around here they might even be the dominant herbivore. I don’t have many ants. Only a few kinds of caterpillars visit. I am sure the pecan trees are happy we have very few aphids. Lovely things like deer exist only on other people’s blogs. Birds and squirrels visit but they are usually looking for berries and nuts. They don’t linger. So I guess snails will have to do.

Do what, exactly? Snails are herbivores. They take the goodness that plants have extracted from the soil and pass it along to the rest of the world.  Without the support of herbivores we wouldn’t have colourful birds, fuzzy mammals or cool lizards lounging in the greenery.

When the worst of the drought hit Austin shortly after we moved here my little system did collapse — despite or maybe more accurately because of my efforts. The tree frogs disappeared and the firefly population dimmed. The pecan trees started throwing huge limbs to the earth.

It would be easy to blame the lack of moisture but I am pretty sure the real problem was the gardener. The lack of snails and me stupidly raking up the leaves each fall to give away (!) to the city was creating a perfect storm. Remove the organic material provided by leaf litter and the soil goes hungry. Remove the herbivores and you break the chain of life.

These days I do everything differently. I do not coddle plants. Well, hardly at all. =) I actively seek out forbs indigenous to the area for reintroduction. Fallen leaves stay on the soil — more or less. Logs are gifts from the trees to the earth. Even snails have a place here.

Homeward bound

So after I subjected this little creature to a couple of photos I thanked it and put it back on a decaying log. It might feed a bird. I can hear wrens chattering as I type. It might feed the larvae of one of the fireflies I love so much. If it survives and the population of snails gets large enough maybe one day the tree frogs will return.

Today I can appreciate the beauty of the snail’s shell architecture and admire its colour — is it amber or maybe more like copper? The bell opening reminds me a bit of a French horn. That well formed shell also tells me our soil is rich in calcium and has enough moisture and nutrition to support life.

One of the ‘purposes’ of this blog is to help me stay mindful of the world around me — to wander around and accurately hear what the world is saying to me. The return of the snail feels good. Maybe I am starting to get it all right this time.