Fearless

Watering the dahlias, I noticed the evidence of snail damage: ragged leaves, silver tracks. It didn’t take long to find the culprit, an impressively large specimen, lodged on the backside of a stem. “Sorry, buddy,” I murmured. “You have to go.”

Ever since reading Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s wonderful book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, I have a sweeping respect for snails and cannot kill them. So instead of ending its life under my shoe, I gently pried the snail off the stem and carried it across the yard and into the woods. This is not the first snail I have relocated, nor will it be the last.

Most snails in transit will suck themselves into their shell and surrender to whatever fate they’re headed for. This snail was different. Instead of hunkering down, he poured himself well out of his spiral house and stretched this way and that, his four tentacles fully extended. I smiled at his bravura. The trip to the woods must have been dizzying, the world zipping by at a speed not designed for snails. Why wasn’t he afraid?

Snails have rudimentary brains called ganglia, groups of neurons situated around the digestive system that coordinate various functions. Aside from the shell, they have three main body parts: the head, the foot and the mantle. The retractable tentacles on the head provide optic and olfactory information, the foot secretes mucus to ease the creature along, and the mantle seals off the body for protection and produces the minerals needed for shell growth. If the shell is injured, even crushed, the snail can readily build a new one.

Hermaphroditic, snails have both male and female sex organs. They can reproduce at one year and live another four to six. Baby snails are born with tiny soft shells that harden with age. Their first meal is the egg case they came from, which gives them a starter dose of calcium.

Even without a prefrontal cortex, snails are capable of associative learning, pursuing what is good for them—food and damp—and avoiding what is (presumably) painful. It’s a life based not on thought but feeling.

What must it be like to navigate the world only through response? To live without the snarls and loops and dead-ends that characterize thought?

Snails have eyes at the ends of their upper tentacles; though these eyes have lenses, there are no muscles to focus the images. They can discern light and dark, that’s about it. The snail I moved could not see his journey, nor could he ponder what was happening to him. All he knew was velocity.

Most creatures hide from danger, in whatever form they perceive it; this behavior is instinctive, no thinking required. Primitive man feared saber tooth tigers, a useful fear designed to save his life. If he hunted anyway, kept the fear in check, he would improve his skills, put meat on the table and enjoy the respect of his clan. If his thoughts got in the way, rendered him tiger phobic, he would find himself in the back of the cave, dejected and scorned, possibly starving. This snail could sense my fingers on his shell, could feel his world careening, but instead of hiding behind his mantle, he leaned into the trip, felt the sun and wind on the length of his soft, gray body. 

I like to think, because I can, that it was fun for him, a thrill ride, that today I found an exceptional snail, one who felt a dangerous change and met it head on.

And I like to imagine that when I placed him on the mound of blue violets, he knew, he just knew, my intentions were good.

Published by

Jean Ryan

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Lillian, Alabama. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her short story collections, SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, are available online. STRANGE COMPANY, a collection of short nature essays, is available in paperback as well as digital and audio editions.

16 thoughts on “Fearless

  1. I am moved by your kindness and consideration toward this wee snail. That, and your curious and scientific mind assessing the medical / physical aspects of the snail and, too, more the take away of a life in motion. A life based on feeling not thought, per se, yet introduces a philosophy where one begins and the other ends (if at all!). Beautiful writing as always. Cindy is a lucky Woman by dint of proximity to the exquisite mind and heart that is exclusively You. Brava! Xoxo

  2. Bella, in true Chip n Dale tradition “no, thank You!” Aa a friend and fan, I find myself deep in my own tracks and thoughts after I read your books, poetry and posts. You are in that rare pantheon of Artists who help us see the world differently, uniquely. Selah!

  3. Loved the article…and I actually learned more about snails than I ever imagined I would today 🙂

    May I share a link to your blog on my blog so that all of my readers can learn more about your blog and all of your writings and articles? If that’s okay with you please let me know. Have an AMAZING rest of your weekend!

      1. Thank you! Please send me the link to your blog that you would like my readers to go to first! Or I can send them to your homepage if that works best for you as a starting point to your blog.

  4. It’s very moving story about your encounter with this exceptional snail. I never had any idea you knew so much about snails. It’s certainly given me an insight to a snails life.
    We have very few snails these days because the raccoons and the skunks seem to take care of them. If I encounter any I may certainly consider relocating them.❤️

  5. Every one of your creations stops me in my tracks – they are now moments I treasure. This piece is no exception. I wanted to be, then became the snail. A rapid ride from there to here. No contemplation, no anguish, no fear.

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