Saturday, October 24, 2009

knowing snails

Back in 2005 I was working on an undergraduate thesis at Portland State University, studying terrestrial mollusk species diversity in a Portland Oregon urban forest.

It was a fairly straightforward piece of research that wanted to answer the question: what species of slugs and snails live in this patch of woods?

26 sample sites, 844 square feet per site, 21944 square feet total. 1004 total terrestrial mollusks found, 16 species, 1 range extension for Cryptomastix germana germana, 1 possible threatened snail, Megomphix hemphilli.

I crawled around in the rainy woods looking under leaf litter & sword ferns for a few small slugs or snails that I would temporarily corral, identify, photograph, then release.

I brought a few home with me, boxed them up, and sent them to the BLM offices outside Roseburg, where Nancy Duncan preserved them and stored them in their Oregon Mollusk collection.

I also took samples of the leaf litter, baked all 26 liters in the oven in our small apartment, then sorted through the detritus with a hand loupe looking for microsnails about the size of a pinhead.

the thesis is here, the associated field guide is here

The thesis process was great and the results typically "scientific" but they both lacked, in retrospect, any kind of discussion of the subtle character of the snails & the environment. There is no subjective information, information without numbers, or purely intuitive data in this kind of product. (Journal of Irreproducible Results which has some real oddities)
Snails are full of character, and spending time in their habitat gave me a lot more information than I could package up and put in the report. The literature seems to suggest that snails have favorite foods, preferred & avoided trails, repeat acquaintances, memories, can live for 20(+?) years, and make their way back to their nest even when picked up and moved (no slime trail to follow, how do they know which way to go?) Through my observations and sensing I began to understand how each snail was different, some were gregarious, recalcitrant, feisty, or gentle. Some were strong for their size, some were very curious. Slugs and snails seem to have individual personalities informed by their genetic code and their life experiences. They make choices.

The science that attempts to get at this holistic view is behavioral ecology. This research tends to focus on explaining the evolutionary origins of behaviors rather than finding patterns or meaning in how/why a plant or animal responds to its environment. What is the organism's nature? This is an extremely difficult question for science to answer and would require mountains of data just to establish action, nevermind motive (Do you know why you do what you do? Do you know the snail does what it does?).

Maybe the better method is to use intuition to establish a relationship with a given life form. Perhaps we could all be assigned a creature, like a zodiac, that we are responsible for observing closely. I think we would find that every organism has the potential to invoke empathy in a human. The ability to feel what it's like to be that plant, animal, or (archae)bacteria. While we call this "projection" and dismiss it as a human artifact we simultaneously labor under the belief that other means of knowledge production are objective and can create a reality divorced from individual experience, with repeatable results, and no fingerprints. A myth, that we believe in to guide our actions.

The explanation many indigenous indians in California gave for how they knew which plants were good to eat, weave baskets with, heal wounds, calm babies, make rope, was much the same; the plants told them what they were good for. A dialogue. Trial and error over long periods seems a likely way to have this conversation, but keeping the records would be no mean feat. Most California tribes had names for each plant, but also a more refined name that depended on where the plant grew. Perhaps our capacity for empathy is great enough that, if trained and valued, we can intuit our relationship to other organisms.

We're currently driving many species extinct without understanding what they can do. Human action has outpaced the system we have of establishing cultural limitations for those actions; science. Eliminating variables before we know what they are, erasing unknown knowledge, foot shooting. catch up quick! it's an emergency.


Forge Ahead Puppet {BUILDING} Productions said...

Thank you for this. Can you add that feature so readers can click the little envelope and email a post to a friend?

Bobby said...

Really good post. I've always thought that that field biology research sounds really fun and contemplative, i really want to give it a try sometime. This makes me want to step up my plans to acquire a stereoptic microscope.