The snail trail
Making a mascot of the shelled gastropods
“How ingenious an animal is a snail… When it encounters a bad neighbor it takes up its house and moves away.”
—Philemon (c. 300 B.C.)
A few weeks ago my friend Clive Thompson linked to a funny little piece about how many medieval manuscripts feature illustrations of knights fighting snails.
I’d never really thought much about snails, but I loved these images. Something in them spoke to me. I downloaded a bunch and stitched them together and printed them out to serve as guardian spirits for my new diary.
At first I liked the idea of “fighting off the snail,” like the snail was sloth, or sluggishness, something to be slain or run through. I drew myself in the place of the knights in my diary:
Then last Tuesday I was dropping my kids off at school after a big rain and I saw a real live snail on the sidewalk. (It rained for several days straight in Texas last week.) This snail didn’t look like any kind of threat to anything. It looked downright friendly, in fact.
Something I learned a long time ago is that it is a great help to the artist to believe that there are no coincidences. One way to boost your curiosity is to just assume that everything in life is a clue left from the universe for further investigation. Follow the clues the universe drops for you, and you will almost always learn something interesting. Take everything as a sign and you’ll be less stumped about what to do next.
I decided to start reading about snails. My first research stop is usually the children’s section, but my kids only had one book on their shelves called The Slug. So I downloaded David George Gordon’s The Secret World of Slugs and Snails: Life in the Very Slow Lane and spent the morning learning about the invertebrates.
Fascinating creatures! Given that they can “sleep for hours, days, weeks, and months,” they seemed to me good mascots for the winter. (Though it should be pointed out that they are also excellent at estivating in the summer!) I started doodling them in my diary.
I mentioned this in Friday’s newsletter, andsuggested that I read Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, a marvelous little book about a bedridden woman who observes a snail while she slowly convalesces from a debilitating illness. The snail becomes her companion and a kind of muse: