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Monday, November 21, 2011

27) Slug & Snail


From my bedroom window I can see the washing on the line: a white shirt stretched out, arms wide, like the ghost of a human torso; towels hanging stiff in their dryness; sheets wrapped around and around the line by the wind.  Night is starting to fall, and the wind is only growing stronger, and the darkness in the sky is not just from the fading sunlight: the rain radar on the Bureau of Meteorology’s website shows a thick angry stormfront galloping towards Melbourne from the west, jagged lines of colour changing in bands from almost white through pale blue and deep marine into orange and red at the storm’s heart – the Bureau’s colour code for light; heavy; heaviest. 

It’s been coming all day.  The last week has been humid, unbearably so by Melbourne’s standards, and the city has sometimes seemed to be auditioning for a place in the tropics: sweltering beneath greasy cloud-cover, surrendering in the afternoon or evening to raging, sky-splitting, road-drowning electrical storms.  It’s La Niña, the news tells us, referring to the fabled sibling and mirror of the El Niño weather pattern which for so much of the last decade has steadily ground Australia down beneath its dry, hot feet.  El Niño’s off tormenting somebody else now, and Australia is getting wet for a change.

With the dampness of La Niña come the gastropods: slugs and snails, members of phylum Mollusca, relatives to Oysters and Mussells (Class Bivalvia).  They’re teeming, they must be in their thousands in my back garden alone: with darkness descending I switch on the lights over the garden and slip on some shoes and take the laundry bag out to retrieve my long-dry washing before the storm arrives.  As I do so I step carefully, watching where I place my feet on the almost overgrown bricks in my back garden.  Weeds, too, have thrived in this weather, and amid the grasses and sundry other unwelcome plants that I can’t name the slugs and snails are leading their lives, inching from leaf to leaf along self-made tracks of glistening mucous.  The unmistakable crunch of a snail underfoot brings a sharp jolt of mixed emotions to someone such as myself who goes out of his way to avoid killing animals unnecessarily: horror at the tiny life suddenly extinguished; guilt at my own heavy-footedness; a peculiar lightness of heart from realising that the incident was unavoidable.  Stepping on slugs in worse, and truth be told the only reason I bother putting on shoes before going into the garden is to save myself the horrid sensation of slugs popping underfoot.  The worst experiences of all, of course, belong to the slugs and snails themselves.  How horrid, how horrifying, to think that life can so suddenly and so unwittingly be ended.

At night they come under the doors, they come through the cracks in the walls and the holes in the floor.  I cook dinner for myself most nights, so there’s always a lot of washing-up to do in my kitchen, and sometimes – often – I’ll come into the kitchen in the bright light of morning to find the tell-tale silvery trail from a slug or a snail tracing a meandering path across a chopping board or a plate, or across the lip of the sink where the water splashes and pools.

At the start of this year I read Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s fascinating and extraordinary book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.  The title comes from an incident in which the author, bedridden and almost paralysed by a mysterious and terrifying illness, is lying awake late at night and hears, in the profound stillness of the friend’s house in which she is recuperating, the infinitesimal sound of a snail which had been transported by the friend with a bunch of wild violets from a nearby wood rasping its teeth over the leaves of that violet, devouring the foliage.  A couple of weeks ago, late at night, I came across a slug on the floor of my laundry.  It was chewing on the body of a dead fly which I’d noticed the day before.  The act was unmistakable: the husk of the insect bobbing and swaying, half of its head engulfed by the head of the slug.  Curious and hopeful, I knelt down beside the slug to try to hear it chewing – an action on my part to which the slug responded, not surprisingly, by retracting its eye-stalks and ceasing all movement; by going into its shell, as we’d say, except that slugs have long since abandoned the shells carried by their near relatives, the snails.  When you don’t have a protective shell extreme caution is your best defence: I retreated, and left the slug alone to its meal, and I had to wait in stillness for several minutes before it stretched itself out again, satisfied that the danger had passed, and resumed its meal.

A couple of days ago, in the long tail of yet another storm, I was doing the washing-up in my kitchen.  It was well after dark but the house was warm and stuffy from the heat of the day so I’d left all the doors and windows open, and the curtains and blinds, too, the better to allow the movement of fresh air through the house.  As I finished the washing-up I noticed a snail creeping across the window – but the outside of the window: as it traversed the flat pane I was able to watch its underside, I was able to see what is normally obscured.

The word gastropod means “stomach-foot”, and a snail’s underside, that slick surface upon which it slides, is called its foot.  As I leaned close to the window, with the snail ignorant of my presence in a position effectively below it and perfectly framed against the black background of night, I was able to observe the endless wave of muscular contractions which propelled the animal forward upon its bed of mucous: one contraction after another, running the entire length of its foot, like ripples on a pond forever disturbed.

Across the flat, smooth expanse of the window the snail moved with surprising speed.  Often it would come across some invisible speck, some microscopic patch of something, and its mouth would open wide: a dark hole on the direct underside of its head, a chasm which worked vigorously over whatever unknowable foodstuff the snail had come across before closing again as the animal moved on.  On other occasions, more subtly, the snail drank: as its head slid over a small droplet of water the water disappeared, not merely giving way beneath the snail’s weight but visibly sucked, dragged towards the snail’s head.  At least once I saw the snail change course abruptly when it sensed water: one of the small antennae beneath its eye-stalks touched a droplet and the animal jack-knifed towards the water.

Twice the snail approached tiny moths (Order Lepidoptera): I wondered if it might consume them, too, but each time the moths flew away, vanishing white-bodied into the night.  It seemed that they didn’t see the snail approaching: they fled only when the snail bumped up against their antennae.

I watched the snail until it reached the bottom of the window pane.  All this time it had been creeping downwards, down the length of the window, and I wanted to see what it would do when it could no longer go in the direction it had been going in; but it didn’t do anything.  It just stopped.  Or perhaps it continued, eventually; but when it didn’t react instantly to the change in topography I stopped watching it.  I had other things to do – probably nothing worthwhile.  Probably just watching television or going online.  Eventually I shut the curtains, and went to bed, and the rain fell in the long restful aftermath of the storm, and in the morning, if I’d gone out to look, if I’d been able to face up to my constant embarrassment at failing to weed the garden, I probably would have found across every brick and leaf and fence-post the shining silver tracks of the thousands of slugs and snails of all sizes with which I share my living space in this wet, humid year.

 Slug image sourced from / Snail image sourced from

1 comment:

  1. I didnt think I woulld enjoy this talk if slimy snails and slugs but it was very entertaining