Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.
~ Bradley Miller
I’m not much of a gardener, and am more a “yard work” kind of gal, though I appreciate the beauty of landscaping, and admire those who tend to theirs with love and skill. I revel in the splendor of my friend’s lovely garden through her fascinating blog, Gardening Nirvana. I’m a “tidier”, and gravitate toward outdoor chores that allow me to create neatness, such as raking, sweeping, and pruning. Our yard is jungle-like, and requires regular rigorous maintenance due to a never-ending abundance of fallen leaves and other organic debris. This, just to keep it fairly neat, not pristine. I don’t fuss too much over our plants, thinking them rather hardy. Flora in our yard must be able to survive with little care, as they won’t be doted on. Our landscape is more wild and rugged as opposed to manicured – nothing one would consider a showcase of finely finessed foliage. So when I occasionally notice snails munching on some of the greenery, I don’t fret over whatever destruction they’re causing, figuring the plants can tolerate a little chewing. Sure, a few leaves look rather decimated, but hey, the snails have to eat something. So for the snails, I say live and let live. My husband, not so much. He doesn’t care for their destructive ways, and expresses disdain at their appetite for his more favored plants. I have a fondness for gastropods, having written previously about my appreciation for their apparent sensuality in my post entitled “Evolution: Escargot, Erotica, Empathy”.
On Monday mornings before the trash collectors get to our house, I trot out to our bin at the curb with last minute deposits (i.e., the morning’s litter box collection). Upon opening the bin, I’d often find snails and slugs clinging to the sides and lid, having worked their way up through the sometimes heavily compacted leaves and trimmings, a feat which quite amazed me. I didn’t have the heart to leave them there, to end up in the trash truck or crushed by the load being dumped into it. So I’d carefully remove them, and discreetly place them back into various areas of our yard. Admittedly, this was probably not the best plan, and I might’ve rescued the same snails every week.
One morning, after being out front for quite a while due to the large number of snails to extract and replace, my husband emerged from the garage saying that if I was going to insist on saving them, we might as well do it right, meaning getting them out of our yard completely. He presented me with a plastic shoe box, and thus began our snail relocation project. Together we canvassed our yard, collecting all the snails and slugs we could find, with the plan to take them somewhere else far away.
Some thought was required in determining where to release the snails. I wanted to put them where they’d have an optimal chance to survive and thrive. We live in a suburban area where most landscaping, even that which appears “natural”, is at least occasionally tended by professional gardeners. Despite how inviting (from a snail’s perspective, of course) some of these areas look, I knew that if I released our snails there, there’d be a pretty good chance that at some point they’d be plucked or poisoned by the gardeners, thereby meeting an inhumane demise. I wanted to save these creatures, not send them to a killing field. So I began scouting for an appropriate safe release zone.
My husband suggested the wild foliage alongside an infrequently used nearby service road. Upon my inspection, I determined that it did indeed appear to be a viable option as a snail habitat. So I donned my rubber-palmed gardening gloves and ferried my cache to their new home. The greenery looked lush, with dark soil beneath. I was concerned for the snails’ wellbeing, and didn’t want to release them into an inhospitable environment, such as one which was too dry and scrubby, thinking they’d prefer dampness and succulent leaves to live on. This place appeared suitable, if not exactly perfect.
Releasing the snails and slugs isn’t as simple as overturning the shoe box, and letting them tumble out. Obviously, they’re sticky, and cling to the surface of the inside of the box, invariably making their way to the underside of the lid. Each one must be gently removed individually, and carefully placed into the greenery, thus making for a somewhat time-consuming effort, depending on how many I’ve got. But as long as I’m not in a hurry to get somewhere – and I do try to make that the case – I don’t mind.
I returned from my inaugural snail-release with a sense of satisfaction, relief, and optimism. And then I had another feeling: itching.
My wrists and forearms displayed a mild rash. Hm. While scratching, it occurred to me that the lush foliage I’d been rustling around in could possibly be poison oak. It’s not uncommon in the coastal sage scrub landscape of our region of Southern California. In fact, I was familiar with poison oak from my own backyard where I grew up. Under our large oak trees, the surrounding hillside was dotted with it. I knew what it looked like, and could identify it by its telltale red-tinged leaves.
The greenery at the snail release site did not look like that at all. But I really was itching, and the rash didn’t go away, and it was on the only part of my body which came in direct contact with the plants. So of course I consulted the omniscient Internet for answers.
In a matter of minutes, I was able to examine photos of the various varieties of poison oak. Lo and behold, I was staring at a photo of shiny green leaves that looked just like the ones where I’d placed the snails. So pretty and harmless did they appear. And ah yes, there was the signature three-leaf structure of the stems.
Thankfully I was only affected on my arms between my elbow and wrist. Some topical ointment would manage the discomfort. But what about the snails?! I was immediately struck by the thought that in my attempt to save them, I might’ve instead doomed them. What affect, if any, did poison oak have on snails? Was it toxic to them? Did they innately recognize it as a potential threat? Could they eat it without injury? Would it impair their sensitive nerve-conduction? Hurry, Internet, tell me!
My anxious search for information resulted in a tentative sigh of relief. I couldn’t find anything that explicitly mentioned poison oak as being trouble for snails. I learned that snails are pretty good about sensing which plants are toxic to them, and not eating them. For example, they might eat the harmless bark of a certain tree, but not its toxic leaves. So I figured that even if they didn’t eat the poison oak, there’d be something else suitable for them in their new home. For myself, it took some weeks for the rash to completely heal, but it wasn’t unbearable. It seems Mother Nature had given me a warning and a lesson, not rendered too harshly.
The Snail Relocation Project has become a regular ritual, conducted carefully in long sleeves. While the current release site is adequate, I nonetheless keep my eyes open for attractive alternatives as I’m out and about, eyeing the landscape for someplace just right, trying to tap my inner snail instincts. And I chuckle to myself when I think of all the thought and effort made on behalf of what many consider to be mere backyard pests. And why not? Why not spare lives when we can? Why not make some effort to live harmoniously with our fellow Earthlings, even the lowly snails and slugs? It’s not their fault that they happen to dwell on “our” property, requiring sustenance from whatever plants we happen to grow. They’re just doing what they do naturally, trying to survive in a territory staked out by humans.
We may never see an overt demonstration of their gratitude, but that is not the measure. We know in our hearts that we’ve done some good deed for another, and that it matters. We can and should be benevolent stewards of the Earth and her inhabitants. Call me Compassionate Citizen. And join me!
If you’re curious to learn more about snails, check out Snail World (informative, but I did note some typos)
- In my friend’s gardening blog, she expressed her own fascination with snails in a recent post, “Slugs and Snails and…Slugs and Snails” (she also, by the way, has her own commendable snail relocation project).