(for Fred and Aleta)
I have a station at a table, the top of which is surrounded by raised sides, to keep material from falling off the edges. I sit on a stool, poring over the work. We take small bags of dry materials from the banks of creeks--mostly dried grass, broken fragments of reeds, leaf litter--and spread the samples out on the table. I sweep a small amount of the sample out and poke through it with a tiny pair of tweezers made out of two wooden matchsticks, looking for the snails.
These are land snails. Fred, who's working beside me, knows all the names and reels them off most impressively. Fred is a Real Biologist with a degree from Cornell and years of experience as a field naturalist. I did some university biology almost 20 years ago, and I never did know this stuff. I hold up a real beauty, a pearl-like iridescent elongated shell, and he rattles off the Latin for it without a second thought. I am deeply impressed by Fred's taxonomic erudition.
And also by the number of snails; there seem to be a couple of dozen in each two tablespoons of scruff. That surprises you? Stop thinking escargots: these are tiny creatures, ranging from the very small (1/4 inch long) to the truly minute (shells the size of mustardseeds). That iridescent beauty was maybe 1/8th of an inch long. I didn't know snails came this little. My only previous experience with snails has been with the big Atlantic shore variety --shells almost an inch and a half across, the biggest ones. I remember when we were little, and staying with my grandmother at her cottage on Mount Desert Island, my sisters and I collected a whole lot of snails in a bucket and left them in the kitchen. The next morning, the pail was empty and Grandmother was really upset.
But for these guys, a trip of a few inches would be a monumental journey. How can any living gastropod be so small? How can a shell this small contain cells enough for a snail's complicated bodily functions? All that respiration, locomotion, digestion, reproduction, sensation, crammed into something the size of a large pinhead. This is too marvelous for me. (I suppose I should bitty find gnats and aphids just as miraculous, but somehow, they're different.) The smallest ones are too small for my tweezers; I pick them up with the tip of a dampened fine brush.
You could look at the growing pile of tiny shells that Fred and I are accumulating, and you could think of the wastefulness of creation--how so many young die before reaching maturity. It seems so pointless, so cruel, this massive loss of the small fry. What sort of God allows this to happen? Each act of birth or hatching is a small piece of hope, and each death is the end of that hope. If you pile up all those hope-ends, it all starts looking hope-less.
What sort of God allows predation? Doesn't God care that the mice suffer at the paws of my hunting cats? What sort of God allows floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes? God only knows how many Mozambiquans died in this week's flooding--and this year, we had the horrible mudslides in Venezuela and the earthquakes in Turkey, not to mention what horrors we've been doing to others of our own species in places like Grozny and Kosovo and Littleton, Colorado.... I could look at this desolate little pile of ex-snails and see it as symbolizing the cruelty and waste of this earth --nothing to give glory to God, only a reason to shake a fist at the sky and curse creation and Creator. "What but design of darkness to appal? If design govern in a thing so small."
But there's another way of looking at things. Each of these tiny creatures did, for a time (however short) have existence. Each tasted, according to its senses, something of this earth--chemical signals, textures, dampness, dryness, warmth, coolness. Maybe some matured enough to make more baby land snails. Probably most didn't. Each one lived, each one died. And we too are as grass.
It's not in the land snail's repertoire to look for any meaning in life; they live what life they have and their consciousness is limited by their biology. Nature lacks intention; it just goes about its business, as it always have. We're the ones reading dark meaning into its patterns; that's our problem, not nature's. We're the ones with the fascination with evil and the fear of death, and we impose our own darkness on the landscape. We can choose to focus on what seems to us to be negative, tragic, unfair, hurtful, in nature or in our own lives; we can work ourselves deeper and deeper into despair, seeing that as Real Insight. Or we can watch with loving interest what's going on out there, aware of the real pain and problems, but trusting that it does all mean something, even if we might not be capable of wrapping our minds around the totality of that meaning, or at least not yet.
I guess I just trust God that all this snail-life makes sense: if not from an anthropomorphic point of view, then from an ecological standpoint. They have their place in the great scheme of creekside life, a small part of God's creation, which is all linked and interconnected in ways I cannot begin to understand. That's what matters.
I go through the small bunch of litter one more time: I think I got 'em all. Sweep up the snail-free residue and dump it into a small cardboard box. On to the next batch...