Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Snail’s Pace

 Ichetucknee -  Wednesday - 1/17/18

Today, like many days, I left the river wishing I had more; more battery life in my camera; more layers of clothes between me and the numbing cold; more aspirin for creaky knees that protest long periods of kneeling on rocks. More than anything, I wished I had more daylight. For the past four hours, I had been staring at a square yard of Ichetucknee river bottom and the crowd of pea-sized Elimia snails that occupied it. As often happens, I spent most of that time transfixed in a state of fascination familiar to naturalists and cause for concern to all others.

By most people’s standards, it had been an unremarkable wildlife encounter. In the time I watched, the most ambitious snail of the group (what’s the collective of snails—a herd? An ooze? A snooze?) was a rambunctious fellow who covered a good half a foot.

Looking back, I see now it was the relative inactivity that made the scene remarkable. It forced me to shrink my perception and see the world from the snail's eye-view. The irregular rocky bottom that I had so often waded across and scanned with the nonchalance of a lumbering giant was now a dramatic landscape. I gazed with a snail’s awe at towering vertical cliffs and deep ravines. Fuzzy chara plants and the clump of red Ludwigia I once kicked from my shoe were now monstrous outgrowths that any adventurous snail with time to spare could make a career of exploring.

As I scanned this world I had so often Gullivered over, I was consumed by the notion that this will be the only world those hundreds of snails will ever know. Judging from the layers of crushed white shells over which they crawled, it was clear they had inherited this realm from countless generations of fore-snails.

Standing to take in the broader view of the snail’s beautifully contoured homeland I was humbled. How could I ever want more from my own vast world? I turned my gaze to the  riverbed upstream and downstream of this little community that now felt so familiar. The clear water allowed me to see other submerged realms, other plateaus far removed from those at my feet, other cliffs and other ravines; other glistening white valleys bedded with the shells of that valley’s ancestors. I realized I was looking at worlds the snails in “my” little community would never see.

As I turned and headed up the hill, up from the river and into the dry upland, I was acutely aware that I was entering a world my little snails could never even conceive. Nothing about it would fit into their known reality. How do I rate? How could I wish for anything more, when every one of the snails I just left will be dead by the next spring of my life. A hundred generations of these snail’s descendants will live and die—many of them in this same rocky plateau—by the time my own days end. How do I rate?

A sliver of shade fell across my eyes. I looked up to see it was cast by an old friend, a towering bald cypress whose branches I’ve scanned many times, watching the comings and goings of birds and other wildlife. This tree’s “knees” and my own have met many times—causing at least one of us considerable pain.

I looked up into the expansive canopy and thought about its ancient age. I wondered how many of my descendants will pass through this shade. How many will knock their knees on its? I wondered what worlds this mother of the forest will gaze upon that I can never conceive.