Staring at the Snails

Snails in the backyard. Photo by author.

Snails in the backyard. Photo by author.

The Backyard Living column is a partnership between ABOUT the River Valley magazineA View from the Backroads, and the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action. This column originally ran in the May issues of ABOUT the River Valley Magazine. 

All columns in this series are written by Meredith Martin-Moats. For more information about subscription information to ABOUT, go here.

This time of year makes me restless. Between the warming days, the strong winds that whip through the mid mornings, and the bright sun that stays up way past dinner time, I find it almost impossible to stay inside. I want to dig new garden beds and build arbors for vines. I make plans to go in search of wild plants and plant four thousand seedlings on the front porch. I want to build trellis and enlarge garden beds. I am certain I drive my incredibly patient husband crazy when I tell him for the one hundredth time about my “great, new idea for the garden.” Basically, I feel a little manic. It’s the only time of year my energy level comes anywhere near to reaching the perpetual excitement my four year old sons live with daily.

 But at 35 weeks pregnant my body has other plans. With my huge belly giving me a weeble wobble-like physique, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get up and down, bend over to weed, or dig in the dirt with a shovel. I’m easily winded and quickly lose my balance; It takes several extra minutes to walk up and down the hill from the house to the garden patch. Thankfully, I’ve had a healthy pregnancy and a doctor who encourages me to exercise daily. During my first pregnancy I carried twins, so growing one baby at a time feels quite a bit more relaxed. But there’s a reason women’ bodies slow down in the third trimester, and I try and respect this shift in a way that honors the work my body is doing.

 In our culture we tend to treat pregnant women as if they’re fragile and need protecting. But I think of the former generations of my own relatives who had no choice but to toil in fields until they went into labor. For many women born into communities where financial resources are scare, this is still the norm. Both situations are problematic. Somewhere there is a middle ground, a way of treating pregnant women with respect that allows for their needed rest while also acknowledging their bodies as strong, powerful, and capable.

 This past weekend I was tending to our small strawberry bed, adding mulch from a decaying log at the bottom of the hill. While filling up a bucket with the soft, spongy wood, I flipped over a fallen limb and found it covered with over fifteen snails. I’ve always felt a certain kinship with any creature possessing a thick, outer shell. The juxtaposition of toughness and vulnerability speaks to the human qualities I most admire. Winded and feeling a little achy, I decided to sit down, take a break, and stare at the snails.

 As I watched them sitting there so peacefully I noticed how they, too, are somewhat awkwardly shaped around the middle. I wondered if they were moving. After all, their movements happen so gradually it can be hard to tell. I don’t want to anthropomorphize these little creatures, but as I sat there watching them move ever-so-slowly I felt myself shift from being angry about how slowly I was moving to being grateful for this opportunity to be still and observe the world around me. I noticed the ants nearby; I heard the birds singing; I took a moment to listen closely to the conversation my sons were having about all the “worm families” in the garden. And I stared at the snails some more.

 Later that night I decided to read a little about my snail friends. I discovered that in the wild they can live to be twenty-five years. And though they only move about fifty yards per hour, they keep a steady pace, moving great distances over long periods of time. As I was dozing off I thought about how often I tell my sons the importance of respecting the time lines of nature, encouraging them to remember that the timetables aren’t always us up to us, no matter how people around us may try and prove otherwise.

I try and offer them a counter narrative to this ever-present societal belief that success must always means growth, pushing yourself to the limits, and forward progress. After all, busyness isn’t a virtue unto itself and adequate rest and time for deep reflection is what makes our brains and bodies capable of meaningful, important work. I tell them these things, but clearly I need reminding, too. Sure speed is great sometimes. Linear lines of getting form point A to B are helpful. Pushing yourself can sometimes help you grow. But it’s all about context and balance. These ideas can be downright foolish when used at the wrong place and the wrong time. Sometimes sitting still is the most powerful thing you can do.

 I didn’t get too much gardening done that day. But my husband, helpful partner that he is, helped finish the strawberry patch. And even though I’ll be welcoming our third child, I realized I still have a lot to learn about the endless patience and internal growth it takes to be a human who raises other humans. I’m thankful I had little time with those snails to remind me of what I too often forget.