DAWN—THE FIRST LIGHT AT THE OCEAN'S EDGE.
A time I’ve always liked the best, when there’s no one in sight,
just me, the sky and the water. Looking around, everything seems
to be in balance and at peace. Then I look down, and I see something strange. There’s this odd pattern in the sand. It looks like a message, or maybe some kind of mysterious map. Clearly, under the cover
of night, something has been afoot here. I see tiny trails going
every which way, and it sets my mind wondering. All at once, I feel
a strange urge to follow them. Who knows where this might lead:
to some ancient shores, to some buried treasure or even an
octopus’s garden in the shade?
Join me, if you will, as we embark on a journey, a flight of fancy, a safari, to see if we can solve the riddle of the writing in the sands. It is a puzzle; these scrawlings seem like hieroglyphics. Have we stumbled upon an ancient text from the library of lost languages, something to decipher, if only we could? I entertain this thought until my rational mind rudely interrupts and suggests a more prosaic answer: These are probably the trails of a common creature, the lowly snail.
Snails have been there right at our feet all along, from the beginning of time, and we would be foolish to dismiss their importance just because of their diminutive size. In fact, they far outnumber us humans. The snail figures large in the cosmology of many cultures. While it is universally acknowledged that the snail moves slowly, in myths it can move mountains. According to ancient Hawaiian legend, the island of Kauai was formed by a giant snail. The Aztecs regarded the snail as a moon god (Tecciztecatl) and a symbol of time and its cycles, while the Mayans saw it as a sign of sexual desire. And the snail even occupied a hallowed place in the heavens, where in a faint cluster of stars is the former constellation Limax, “the naked snail,” now considered obsolete. Looking up on a clear night you might find it crawling near Orion’s left heel and before the head of the constellation “The Hare.” From this perch high above, surely the snail has seen much throughout many millennia.
The snail is one of nature’s oldest living creatures. They were here when dinosaurs roamed the earth 99 million years ago, long before mankind. And they will very likely be here when we’re gone (they have already been to space and back in 2011). Could it be their maze of silvery trails across the sand tell a story from before time itself?
Snails are gastropods and belong to the family of Mollusca, the second-most-numerous phylum in the animal kingdom after insects. Mollusks are divided into two types, those with shells, like the snail, and those without, like the slug. The snail has a carapace or shell into which it can recede, and is one of the slowest creatures on the planet. It is capable of a reaching a speed of up to a blinding 50 yards per hour or one mile per day. Snails have two sets of tentacles that look like horns, useful for overtaking slower traffic. Inside the shell, a snail’s body is basically a foot, a mouth and a stomach. Its Latin name gastropoda loosely translates as “walking stomach.” Snails move by secreting mucus to reduce friction and skid along slowly leaving a trail of silvery mucus behind them.
The snail is burdened with a petty and nagging PR problem: It always gets bad-mouthed for being slow and lazy. If we were more generous, we could say they’re patient. The French have long considered snails a delicacy and the French appetite for escargot is well known. According to Pliny, early Romans bred snails and fattened them for the tables of the upper class. The Greeks also ate gastropods and believed they acted as aphrodisiacs. The snails sat at the tables of the rich and mighty, and not only were snails rubbing shoulders with the upper class, but they were actually draping the shoulders of kings and emperors. The color purple was a dye first derived from the mucus membranes of Murex snails. It was said to take the “tears” of 10,000 snails to make one bottle of the purple dye and it was worth more than gold. So, purple was reserved solely for the royal rags. Forget about Prada, Caesar wore purple.
Shells were the earliest known form of currency. The Congolese have used small dried snails known as zimbos as money until modern times. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, discovered therapeutic uses for the snail in the healing of wounds, as it is still used today. Aesop found the snail to be a sturdy character for many of his fables. Six centuries ago, the snail starred in a Japanese classical comic theater called Kyogen. And snails played cameo roles in at least four of Shakespeare’s plays, including the famous scene in which King Lear is challenged by The Fool to answer a riddle about a snail.
If that all sounds familiar, it’s because the snail is a riddle, a swirling whorl of a maze, a question within a question. Their trails crisscrossing the sands appear willy-nilly. Gazing at them upon the beach, there seemed to be some method to their madness, so I decided I’d consult an expert and ask the Hare—not the astronomical one, but the March Hare from Lewis Carroll’s Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. He might know about the snails’ cryptic scrawl. After all, the Hare was there with Alice when the Mock Turtle invited the Snail to the dance, singing “will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you come and join the dance?”
Yes, and that could be a clue. The snails had accepted the invitation long ago and joined the dance and, late at night, the merry mollusks had been performing their intertidal choreography under the stars. What I was seeing in the morning was the residue from all that slippin’ and a-sliding. They’d had a Beach Boys’ surfin’ safari, maybe even an Escar-a-Go-Go. Yes, it was all starting to make sense suddenly. The writing was there just to throw me off. This was no ancient text like the codex, it was an all-night beach bacchanalia with dancing and off-duty waitresses lounging in the starlight smoking seaweed and waving their mermaid tails, shells jousting in armor while husky snails pulled picnic basket chariots overflowing in garlic and precious oils, and a race run by the fleetest of snails—a race to rival the Tour de France itself. And when the sun came up, they would be gone. And all that remained would the traces in the sand, waiting for the tide to come and sweep away the evidence like it had all been a dream.
Speaking of dreams, the visionary psychoanalyst Carl Jung often used snails as a model, with the outer shell representing conscious thought and the soft part of a snail as the unconscious. Another visionary doctor who seemed to have a soft spot for snails was Dr. Seuss.
With that, my friends, our little excursion is about over. Our snail safari has taken us from the Hawaiian Isles to the high heavens, the pyramids of Mesoamerica to the tables of the Roman emperors, and to the bard himself—not to mention the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the psychiatrist’s couch. And all at a very leisurely snail’s pace. Was this just a dream? No, the snail’s tale is still there for all to see. It is written on the sands of time and in the stars above, and has been since the dawn of eternity.
Movie? I favor Stanley Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove is a cinema
masterpiece. Orson Welles’s The Third Man also ranks as a favorite.
Drink? Ginger beer.
Maine restaurant? Fore Street or Street & Company. Their food and
service are excellent and they’re not as loud as many of the new restaurants.
Place you’ve traveled to as an adult? Laos and Cape Verde.
Shoes? Barefoot is still my favorite. Birkenstocks and New Balance
running shoes rank second and third.
Way to relax? Swimming in the ocean.