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.

What Ants Know

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There are ants that tend to their injured
by licking their wounds,
slowly transferring their own health
into fallen soldiers,
sealing fresh lesions against lethal bacteria.
Who can say why a creature as small as an ant
with so many hardy brethren,
would bother to stop—an hour if need be—
and help a troop.
In that tiny helmet of a head
are there neurons of compassion, of pity,
or are these ministrations automatic, instinct,
like the urge to tunnel or serve a queen
(what is instinct anyway
but a word for what we can’t explain?).
Some ants will even evac a battered brother,
not the terminal—those who have lost too many limbs
to the brutal jaws of termites—
but the ones who, with proper attention,
may fight another day.
The medics sense the difference
and do what they can
before moving farther afield,
gifted with the knowing
there is not a moment to spare.

Regrets, I’ve Had A few

I recently read a Facebook post that began with three words: “Have no regrets.” The author went on to justify this remark by reminding us that every decision we have ever made has fashioned us into the people we are today. This argument does not seem sufficient. Couldn’t we be more than we are today? Why is it wrong to imagine so?

Dictionaries define regret as a feeling of sadness, repentance or disappointment over something that has happened, especially a loss or missed opportunity. I can’t imagine there’s a person alive or dead who has not experienced this wistful angst. Regret is the product of a robust conscience and a working mind. If we did not regret our mistakes, we would not learn from them. We would be something less than human.

The nice thing about regrets is that they lose no potency by being kept private. I could tell you right now what my top three are, but I won’t. They are mine. Like the small and steady diminishments that come with age, I don’t deny my regrets. I allow them, forgive them; I keep them close. Wrinkles and regrets—what can you do but give them a home?

I can’t believe there’s a purpose to everything, hidden trajectories designed for each of us. While life on this planet is held in exquisite balance, it is also random and unjust, urgent and ever-changing. Our lives are so rife with choices and hazards that regret is inescapable, maybe even an adaptation, a feature meant to foster compassion and humility.

Not that we need to be mired in remorse, mourning the options we didn’t pursue. To dwell on something is to stop moving forward. But if we own our regret, acknowledge where we might have done better, we might in fact do better. Some of the roads we could have taken are closed off now–no matter; more open up all the time.

On the virtual plane, there are many versions of myself, living out the choices I didn’t make. Life is not easy. I wish them well.