On Watching A Group of Snails Cross the Sidewalk

There must have been about a dozen of them, each making its own slow, stately progress across the sidewalk, antennae probing the air in slow motion, pinwheeling like the limbs of a cartoon character that’s just walked off the edge of a cliff, waving around like the tentacles of a sea anemone. They formed an elegant regatta; instead of sails, each hoisted its own carapace, navigating this dangerous crossing by touch. They were difficult to see, though, their shells blending so completely into the color of the concrete. I thought of the Allied convoys that ferried supplies across the Atlantic during World War II. Of the scores of ships that set out, up to half were routinely picked off by German U-boats. How many snails would make it to their destination: the brick wall on the other side of the sidewalk, behind which lay a neighbor’s front garden and safety?

The sidewalks are thick with snails this time of year, but I had never before seen so many travelling in a pack or a herd or a bevvy, or whatever the technical term is for a group of snails. Everything about them reminded me of ships. They bobbed up and down slightly as they sailed along, their bodies moving in a wave-like motion, the slimy foot on which they glide rippling like the surface of the ocean. And they even left a wake, thin strips of mucous just like the ones I see glistening in our garden every morning, tracing the paths where the snails have been. They were so calm, so determined, so oblivious to the danger they were in from pedestrians. I thought of putting up a road sign, CAUTION: SNAIL CROSSING. By the way, May 24 is National Escargot Day.About 45 minutes later, I was coming back the same way and stopped to see how the snails had fared. Of the 12 that originally set out, eight made it to the garden. I saw one still making the final ascent of the brick wall on the other side of the sidewalk. I counted four oily, snot-like clumps and four crushed shells. Not a bad success rate, I thought, for such a perilous trek.

I don’t know any aphorisms about snails, but I do know a few aphorisms about persistence, and that’s what impressed me most about these snails. They risked everything to get to the other side. To me, their progress looked plodding. But for the snails it was a race against death. And they took their time, taking the perils and the possibilities in stride. Like Baltasar Gracián, a 17th century Spanish Jesuit monk, said:

Be slow and sure. Things are done quickly enough if done well. If just quickly done they can be quickly undone. To last an eternity requires an eternity of preparation.