[Dartmoor, Devon, England]
I didn’t mean to fall in love with snails. But a quick glance at my camera roll shows a disproportionate ratio of snail pics to family pics, or even to wildflower photos. Snails have not been on my radar till this Dartmoor visit. Then again, on a previous trip here, I fell in love with cow pies. I documented dozens of pats on the open moor—where cattle, Dartmoor ponies, and sheep graze freely—and where cows in particular left the most compelling material. Each was a “drop sculpture,” which is a term I’ve just invented because it reminds me of “drop biscuits,” which is a shortcut way to make [American] biscuits: by dropping wet batter from a spoon rather than by rolling and cutting. Cow dung as drop sculpture: I like it.
But I like snails this time.
Candy-color spirals are undeniably pretty:
These are all white-lipped snails (Cepaea hortensis). They are also known as banded snails, though they don’t always have bands. The ground color can be yellow, pink or brown. This handful was collected from just a few feet of farm track, which shows how common they are. All are empty of snail though some may be full of bee. (Last week, I learned that the native mason bee Osmia bicolor repurposes empty banded shells as nurseries for her larvae.)
When I started looking for banded snails here in our borrowed Dartmoor garden, I found them all over: in pavement cracks, on walls, on the boxwood, on the pansies, and especially on tall, spindly columbine stalks. The columbine perches are what mystify me.
Snails climb the columbine every day—many spend the night—where they buffet in breeze and wind high above the comfortable earth. It reminds me of stories of sailors lashed to masts during gales, swinging mad angles from sky to sea. Why would a snail invite such toggling through air? A snail in wind would dry out, no? And be more exposed to hungry thrushes?
Another odd thing about this combo is that columbine is supposed to be toxic to snails and slugs. Columbine is on lists of plants least likely to be consumed: “slug-safe plants.” But I’ve stooped and stared—careful not to cast a predatory shadow—while both gastropods eat columbine flowers.
True, columbine doesn’t seem to be the favorite meal. By contrast, every pansy is in tatters. Pansies are delicious to humans, too, so this is no surprise. They show up on salads in our favorite cafes.
Snails may show up on menus, too, but they’d be the bigger garden / Roman snails and I would never eat them. My enthusiasm is for the observation of snails, not the consumption of.
Each morning by 5am I am in the garden, staring at snails.
I predict snail love will last as long as our visit, and will then become a happy memory. Rather like what happened with my cow pies. But at least with snail shells, I can toss a few in a bowl to display on the kitchen table.