"The search for the universal within the infinitesimally small is a quiet theme playing through most cultures," writes biologist David George Haskell in his book The Forest Unseen. And so he sits down nearly every day for a year to contemplate the life in a square meter of woodland in Tennessee. During those hours, his own life seems to slow to a snail's pace.
"Tiny Travelers" in this issue introduces a handful of Minnesota's terrestrial snails. Actually, a handful of these micro-mollusks could add up to thousands. As Haskell points out, observation of such nearly invisible creatures became possible only when people learned how to make glass and polish lenses for microscopes. A hand lens is his window onto the teeming forest floor.
People have always been creative in devising tools for hunting wildlife. "A Stick and a String" features contemporary practitioners of the ancient art of hunting deer with a traditional wooden bow. Some of these archers craft their own bows. "World-Class Fly-Fishing Destination" offers a new twist on pursuing Minnesota's monstrous muskies—by wielding heavy-weight fly rods to cast super-sized, hand-tied flies on a river in a drift boat.
In both of those stories, the quarry is familiar—big fish and game. But Haskell wonders why "our everyday experience of the animal kingdom is dominated by two groups of animals: the vertebrates and the insects … yet they represent just a fraction of the structural diversity of animals." He directs his attention underground and under the leaf litter, where snails and other invertebrates dwell.
In her book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey focuses on the life of one particular land snail. The two-inch Neohelix albolabris is closely related to Minnesota's largest species, Neohelix alleni.
Bedridden because of a mysterious disease, Bailey watches the snail, which lives first among potted violets and then in a forested glass terrarium at her beside. She unravels the mystery of its nightly travels and odd dining habits: Climbing out of its container, the snail chewed square holes in envelopes and letters on the nightstand. Later, mesmerized, she listens to its hour-long munching of a flower petal.
As her curiosity grows, Bailey begins reading volumes on land snails. Her sources range from poets and writers to Victorian-era naturalists and present-day malacologists. With close daily observation and study, she discovers many of the snail behaviors and characteristics that researcher Jeff Nekola reports on in his story for Young Naturalists. For example, the importance of slime can hardly be overstated. "Slime is the sticky essence of a gastropod's soul," she writes, "the medium for everything in its life: locomotion, defense, healing, courting, mating, and egg production. … And rather than making a batch of 'all-purpose' slime, my snail had a species-specific recipe for each of these needs and for different parts of its body."
Slime seals the shell entrance when the snail goes dormant. During summer dry spells, this escape is known as estivation. Winter cold calls for a longer retreat with better insulation. A snail may hibernate by sealing up the house with a thicker mucous layer, or epiphragm. Some species put up rows of epiphragms, trapping air between layers like double-pane windows.
Through his hand lens, Haskell watches a snail waving two small tentacles "like fingers reading Braille" and two larger ones, "each with a milky eye at its tip." He ponders the mystery of how a snail sees the world: "The human body and the snail body are made from the same wet pieces of carbon and clay, so if consciousness grows out of this neurological soil, on what grounds do we deny the snail its mental images?"
Wondering about her snail's intelligence, Bailey searches scientific literature and finds that a snail has a brain and the ability to learn and recall smells and tastes.
No matter the scale, every living species challenges human understanding and stretches imagination.
Kathleen Weflen, editor