Yesterday I watched snails have sex. Okay, that sounds dirty. I saw snails have sex. And I photographed it. *reflective pause* Yup, still dirty. Still, it was the first time I had ever seen snails doing the horizontal bop, which for snails appears to be the vertical bop, so I think I can be forgiven for being curious. Kinda makes me look at that old Mountain Dew ‘Get Vertical!’ ad with new eyes, though. I suppose even snails are looking for a way to live on the edge. They seem to spend most of their lives horizontal, so it only makes sense that they’d want to shake things up a little when it comes down to making the beast with two shells. And what a beast it was! I came upon these two, unaware that they were locked in the throes of passion, and thought that I was seeing an enormous snail that had been stepped on. The shell didn’t look right at all and there was snail everywhere. Then I saw that there were two of them, and it looked for all the world like they were kissing. French kissing and escargot both come to mind, but I will restrain myself from further comment.
But wait, don’t I remember from science class that they call this snail base a ‘foot’? Isn’t that right? So did that mean they were touching feet? Was Vincent Vega right about foot massages after all? There must be more going on than that, right? Upon closer inspection, I saw that they each had long, thin, black…things, for lack of a better word…coming out of somewhere and kind of wrapped around each other. If you’re a Charlie the Unicorn fan and remember the ‘Grab onto our tongues, Charlie!’ scene, you’ll have a bit of an idea of what I saw. Why they both had these things, I did not know, although a comment that a friend of mine has since made about she-males may have given me a clue. At the time, though, I thought that they might just be gay. Could I add snails to the list of animals that display homosexuality that I mentioned in Civil Rights Are Awesome, Unless You’re Gay…Or An Unmarried Woman? Only time and internet research will tell. Ah, the internet-the world’s most extensive collection of mutually agreed upon falsehoods. Glad I can contribute.
My first thought, once I realized what was going on (we’re back to the mating snails), was to wonder how on earth they had found each other. It seemed like it had to be a million-to-one shot. I began considering snail reproduction, something I’m not certain I had ever done before, and tried to calculate the odds that these creatures could reproduce in significant enough numbers to maintain the species if it was in fact a lucky coincidence (I didn’t actually calculate the odds, mind you. I have enough trouble calculating tips). I decided that there was no way snails just happened upon each other and that was that. There had to be something more, but what? ‘And then, from across the forest floor, their antenn-eyes met’ seemed unlikely. Could it be something like pheromones? And then it hit me. Was that what the slime trail was for?! My enthusiasm at the time was such that one would think that I would have looked up the answer between then and now, but sadly I have not yet had the oppourtunity to do so. For now, I will wonder and tell myself that I’m probably at least partially right. After all, it’s exceedingly rare that I’m ever completely wrong.
It wasn’t long on my walk before I saw another pair of mating snails. I suppose I should mention at this point that I was in a wooded area (some ‘woods’, if you will, and these places we call ‘woods’ often lend themselves to wildlife sightings, or so I am told), hiking outside of the southern Serbian city of Niš in a place called Niška Banja. It’s not so strange to see a fair number of solo snails cruising around town looking to get into trouble (snails are such rebels), but having never seen two of them cozying up to one another before, a second sighting within a matter of minutes would be a rare thing indeed within the confines of the concrete jungle. So yeah, I was in nature. It was when I saw the second pair that I realized that it’s spring, of course, and that it’s probably that time of year for snails, too (again, hadn’t done a lot of late night pondering about the when’s, where’s and how’s of mollusk love). Nevertheless, I was still curious about whether the prospective partners were drawn to one another and how that worked. Although I didn’t get an answer, I soon got more evidence to support my theory about slime trails.
I had exited the woods and found myself near some houses. It was around the summit of the hill/mountain thing that I was on, and it seemed like it was probably time to turn around, but then I caught slow and laboured movement out of the corner of my eye. Oh, you guessed it. It was a snail in hot pursuit of a lady. Or maybe another guy snail. Or maybe that was the lady. I just don’t know. But there it was, this snail, and it looked bound and determined to get somewhere. I followed its intended path and saw, in a patch of down-trodden grass (meaning that it had been mashed down. I do not pretend to have understood its emotional state and can only speculate as to the level of oppression and marginalization it has experienced) that can only be described as ‘bedding’, another snail. This one-male, female or otherwise-looked to be hunkered down and waiting. For another snail, mayhaps? This was my theory. I decided to wait for the first snail to reach this second one. That is when the dogs at the nearest house began to bark.
Their barks belonged to that intensely irritating kind that dogs are so good at and that trees can’t manage to emulate unless you get really close to them. At any moment I felt that people would emerge from the house and assume that something was not as it should be. I was rather loathe to explain my presence there (funny story, I actually know the word for ‘snail’ in Serbian, but imagine explaining to a nervous farmer that, really, you’re just watching this snail crawl over some grass), so I tried to move out of the dogs’ line of sight. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ works on dogs, right? Well, it did this time. I moved just far enough away so that they couldn’t see me, trampling some of the grass as I went (and yes, I take full responsibility for the effects that this had on its sure-to-be-fragile emotional state), and that was when I almost stepped on, like, a bajillion snails. Okay, it was more like 10 or 15 and they were kind of spread out, not all huddled together (I couldn’t have stepped on all of them, is what I’m trying to say…perhaps among them). They were very close to each other, however, and some of them especially so. For me, it was evidence of a snail orgy. And there they were, some of them not quite touching, others clearly finished, some appearing to wait.
This brought my attention back to the nesting snail and soon-to-be-mate. It was slow-going for love in motion. Thick grass stems and irritating seeds blocked the pursuer’s path and made the journey difficult. At times, it looked like the little fellow was wavering on the edge of self-doubt, but he pressed on. I, however, did not. The distance was measurable in inches, but I knew that the time would be measurable only in terribly bored hours. I left him to his mission, my questions unanswered but my curiosity, for the moment, sated. I am not a biologist after all.
I strolled on, suddenly fascinated by the spring fever that had been gripping these snails, and it wasn’t long before I got thinking about reproduction in general. Birds and their eggs naturally came to mind, but I also remembered having seen lots of pairs of those little not-ladybugs that are all over Europe, the ones that are longer and flatter and a bit more square but otherwise share a lot of the characteristics with one of our cutest insects. Then I tried to think about less traditional ways of reproducing. For example, I figured that plants had a pretty clever thing going. Here they grew these delicious fruits to house their seeds. At first glance these tasty treats seem nothing more than food for other creatures, but in reality they’re tricking us into spreading their genes, letting us do all of the work for them. I looked around at the cherry seeds and apple cores strewn about on the ground-life waiting to happen all around me. Well done, guys. But after a moment or two I felt bad for the plants. It didn’t seem like they got very much fun out of it at all. Here was this great drive that everything faced, culminating in some kind of release for most creatures, and plants just dropped seeds. It didn’t seem fair.
But as often happens with such musings, my thoughts came back around and I asked myself what I really knew about how plants experienced reproduction. Perhaps there was a wonderful feeling that happened during the growing of fruit or when it fell from the branch? And this thought itself brought to mind other life forms, such as amoebas, that are absolutely alone when they reproduce. Literally copying their DNA and splitting into two, was this not the most basic fulfillment of reproduction? A living being, consciously or unconsciously, has the desire to recreate itself, even if it must come with slight or even significant changes, but was how this occurred truly important on the larger scale? Ultimately, was procreation really anything more than just a form of slow time-travel, all of us pushing our genes in front of ourselves, ever forward, one generation after another?
It was while thinking just these thoughts and walking down the tree-lined road that would hopefully carry me back to town that I was struck by something else entirely: a big cloud of bugs. I could not see them, but they were there, and when I finally escaped, I saw that I was not alone on the path. Intermittent bands of light shone down between the trees and illuminated loose swarms of these countless flying insects. It brought to mind the illustrations I had seen as a child of excited molecules in a container of gas. Water vapour, I believe it was supposed to be. They had danced around in a seemingly random pattern, appearing unaware of or ambivalent toward the others, but nevertheless bound by the container. So it was with these pockets of insect swarms I was encountering here and there along my walk. They flew to and fro, without any clear aim or cause and showing no perceivable attachment to their fellow swarmers, and yet they never strayed too far from the core. Something held them there, something bonded them together so that even when disbursed by a passing car or traveler they always found their way back to one another. My thoughts of reproduction were momentarily sidetracked by thoughts of life in general. What was causing these insects to stay together when they seemed to be completely independent of each other. Were they truly apathetic about the group, remaining in it only because striking out on their own would be too difficult and losing the others might mean death? Or was there something stronger that bound them together?
Shouts broke my reverie as an old man on a nearby homestead started yelling at his goats. They had apparently gone somewhere where they were not supposed to go (and by his exasperated tone I guessed that he felt they should have known better), and the man chased them back to the other side of the yard where some dogs were dozing in the shade. It was then that I saw the smile on his face as he looked back toward his wife, who was busy in the garden. I heard them chatter and laugh, possibly about the goats. They were both quite old but appeared to be working no less diligently for their advanced age. The dogs started barking at me (it had become a familiar refrain by then), and the two looked up and returned my greeting when I gave it. The exchange of ‘good day’ pleasantries was brief, and the two immediately returned to their work and their chatting.
As I walked past, I could not help but notice the sunken houses on their property. They were old and bent just like these people, sagging in places that had once been strong and falling apart in others. I wondered if these two had built them long ago, or if it had been one of their parents or even grandparents. They looked so worn with age and weight that it would not have surprised me to learn that they had stood for several generations before slowly sinking back down to the earth. Even these lowly dwellings still appeared to serve some purpose, however, as it looked as though that they had been cannibalized for building materials somewhere along the way, perhaps even many times. And so the houses and their caretakers, although all were feeble and fading, had not yet ended their work. I tried not to ask myself which would outlast the other.
This scene and the thoughts that inevitably followed, try as I might to chase them away, called to mind something that I had seen earlier in my walk. One of those not-ladybugs (and I can’t seem to find a picture of them online, so I’ll have to take one myself and post it with this later) was lying in a pile of ants. They were teeming and frenzied, so many crawling so quickly that they looked like tiny oscillating black dots. I felt sad for the not-ladybug. A closer look showed more movement as one of its arms lifted up and it slowly turned its body. Damn. The thing was still alive. What a horrible and terrifying death. My only comfort came at the thought that these ants might be the ones doing the moving. As numerous and as fast as they were, and considering that they were likely trying to get it closer to their home, it was entirely possible that this little creature was in fact dead, and the movements I had attributed to it were just the result of the hard-working ants. I marched on my way.
It had been a heavy walk. Birth (or at least the prelude thereto) and death had both been my traveling companions, an ever-present reminder that although life never stops, nothing lives forever. And yet, there were the swarms of gnats, clinging to one another for reasons unknown to me and perhaps unknown to themselves. There was the old couple with their houses and their goats, clinging to one another just the same, as they toiled on the land in their old age. It was all in the name of survival. And you know, that could easily have been a dreary image to take away from my walk if I hadn’t gotten to see that man smile. Sometimes a little reminder is all we need to remember why we keep struggling after all.