Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Life in the Very, Very Slow Lane

Moss. Puddles. Drizzle. Muddles. This spring of epic precipitation drippingly continues, much to the delight of slugs and snails. The slugs, slimy cowards that they are, only creep out at night to munch on the struggling vegetables in the garden, but I often come across adventurous snails plowing across the sidewalk after it rains.

Even though snails are just as guilty as the slugs when it comes to wreaking havoc in the garden, they've got that cute-shell thing going on, so even though I'd never pick up a slug from the sidewalk and carry it home, I've rescued two snails in this way. I say "rescued" because poor snails caught on the sidewalk are likely to be trod upon (accidentally by grown-ups, on purpose by mean children) or eaten (by gobble-first, ask-questions-later Labradors like mine).

Max is unfazed by a flashlight beam.
The first snail surprised me with what seemed like a spark of personality. After I plucked it off the sidewalk, I expected it to shrink into its shell and stay there. But no. The little guy insisted on crawling up to the top of my hand (leaving no slime trail, incidentally, so there was no "ick" factor) and riding there for the entire walk home, its eye-tentacles stretched to their limit as if it were taking in the sights on a tour bus. Which I guess, for a snail, this experience was. Being carried in this way was surely like traveling at warp speed in snail world.

The snail's appearance of eagerness reminded me of Max, the dog in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in the scene where Max sits up at the front of the sleigh, tail wagging and tongue lolling, assuming that he is going for a ride. So I named it Max. I created a mini-habitat for Max in an empty plastic container after poking airholes in the lid. Max immediately tucked into the feast of lettuce I provided, rasping a trail through it by evening's end. The next morning it was fast asleep, hanging upside down from the top of the container. All seemed well, since snails are nocturnal.

But when Max was still in the same position the next day, with a dry, crackly-looking clear film securing it to the container, I feared for the critter's life. I assumed the film was part of the snail's "epiphragm," a thin protective membrane secreted by a land snail to seal off its interior; it helps a hibernating snail maintain, among other things, the humidity that it likes. Perhaps the habitat I'd created wasn't humid enough for the snail.

Even though a snail can live for months in suspended animation (and some snails have lived years), I felt kind of bad about the epiphragm possibly leading to Max's epitaph, so I set the snail free in a flower planter in the garden. The theme from Born Free wasn't exactly thundering in the background, but it still felt like the right thing to do, even though I knew Max would soon be chomping on the chard.

I checked on Max later that evening, and there it was, cheerfully promenading around the planter, holding no grudges regarding former captivity.

Having learned nothing, I rescued another snail the next day. This one, however, was shy and retiring; it lacked the vivacity of Max. It retreated into its shell and stayed there all the way home. I didn't provide this one with a snail condo, instead sticking it straight into the planter to see if it would come out at night, ready for its closeup. A final check half a day later, around 10 p.m. on a damp, perfect-for-snails night, showed that it was still hiding; it hadn't even budged.

Dead? Nope, just extremely cautious, I guess. Maybe it's a species difference: Max was, I think, a Banded Wood Snail (a European species now common in the Pacific lowlands), while no-name was, I think, a Brown Garden Snail (another European import, described as a "serious garden pest" that has "moved into the Pacific Northwest much to the dismay of gardeners everywhere" on a snail website). Maybe Brown Garden Snails are geniuses who know it's wise to lie low when plucked up by a predator. Maybe Banded Wood Snails are doofuses. (At any rate, Snail 2 had ambled off by morning.)


"No water view? Fuhgeddaboudit."
The third sidewalk snail I found had already shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleedin' choir invisible: it was an ex-snail. Perhaps a lesson in what happens to snails that don't run for cover. The empty shell, however, was being investigated by a sowbug that looked a lot like a person at an open house. Despite the downturn in real-estate prices, would-be homeowners in Seattle still don't overlook prime residential spaces, so maybe this sowbug knew better than to overlook an opportunity (especially if there were granite countertops in the shell).