Saturday, August 8, 2009

Slugs and Snails

The other day I was out in the garden, cleaning up the dead leaves, making nature look sexy instead of messy, when I came across some garden slugs. Ugh. Slugs.

slugI hate slugs; even their name is repellent. They're slimy little squishy eating machines: gross miniature monsters eating holes in the beautiful leaves of my imagined perfect garden. Though I hate to touch them I had no qualms about crushing them under the heel of my boot to rid the garden of their pestilence. A few minutes later I came across the common garden snail (escargot to you) and my reaction was quite different. It's still a garden pest and eating machine but instead of active repugnance I pick it carefully up by its stripped tortoiseshell-like spiral home where it brings a smile to my face as it starts to uncurl its little noble head from its body to peer at me inquisitively from its extraordinary eyestalks.

snailI couldn't crush it: I carefully carried it out of the garden. I never have been able to harm a snail. They're slippery, not slimy. They have beautiful shells. They have an elegance when fully extended, a sort of equine grace to their heads and the arch of their body as they navigate their world with a slow steady curiosity. I'm sure many of these are imagined qualities in my head, but my love affair with snails has been going since I was a kid when I would collect them to keep as pets, and carefully release them before I had them too long.

The same kid that showed such gentle devotion to his snails once stuck a match stick in the air hole of a slug, lit it, and watched it burn down until it melted the slug in a searing sizzle of outraged twisting writhing slugginess. I'm not proud of that moment and it didn't give me any fiendish pleasure but rather taught me not to torture animals - even ones I despise.

nudibranchThe irony of all of this is that slugs, to most people, are snails without shells. In the mind of most people they are quite similar, if not nearly exactly the same, and the slime of the slug is the slime of the snail. Each has the same disastrous effect in the garden as they munch their way across your favorite shrub, veggies, and flowers. Even biology bears out the opinions of most people: they are both gastropods that got out of the sea and crawled on the land. Slugs developed mucus to protect their soft bodies designed for aquatic living and snails have a shell, like many of their relatives. Sea slugs are some of the most beautiful creatures on earth, nudibranchs, and even some land slug species are quite extraordinary.

The fact is I'm prejudiced. Like most prejudiced people my reasons seem perfectly reasonable: slime, squishy, plant-eating. And just like most prejudices I can't see what I don't want to see like the fact that the snail is the same creature but with a shell. My prejudice is so ingrained it's visceral, but with open eyes can I cease my ridiculousness? I don't mean that I should cease to remove slugs from my garden or that I should love snails any less, but that I should simply stop hating the simple slug, humble relative of creatures like nudibranchs and snails, and give it the respect it's due. It's the respect that all living creatures deserve just for being what they were born to be. It's not layering my hatreds and fears on their backs until I can't see them anymore, but stripping away the layers to see that they are just trying to make a living the best way that they can.

What prejudices do you hold so close you can't even see them anymore?

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