Anyone who has read a few entries here would know I’m besotted by snails – or at least with what they’ve come to mean to me. As I wrote toward the end of Sinning Across Spain – I believe snails are gurus.
Lately they seem to have been all around, and I’m pretty certain they’re calling me to slow down; or is it to tuck myself inside and withdraw from the world for a while?
Regardless, I wanted to share with you two of their recent incarnations…
When I was walking in the Basque country in France this April, following the GR65 trail from north to south, I came across a detour. It was called the Chemin de L’Escargot, and there were lots of brightly-coloured images of a grinning snail posted on trees and fence-posts, trying to tempt pilgrims off the main path.
Just look at that photo up there. How could I possibly have resisted her invitation?
I veered onto a snaily side-road, and was lead by the cheery mollusc up and down and around some of the loveliest, springiest vistas of the entire journey.
The detour was completely unpeopled, so I got to soak up big doses of quiet, reflective emptiness along the snail trail.
This was my first walk as a widow.
I’m not sure what that really means – the word sometimes fits, and at other times I reject it completely. I’m skeptical of most labels, and even “pilgrim” doesn’t describe all of me, much as I like to think of myself as a walker and seeker. But there were times during this widow walk when I couldn’t shake that label of loss, and on the day of the snail diversion, I was feeling particularly dark. On that empty path, I was grateful to be able to shout or wail or weep, without fear of being seen, or without giving concern to those who love me.
The snail road, in all its beauty and slowness, gave me permission to do a bit of releasing. A good deal of it, actually, along those exquisite, overlooked byways. Pilgrimage, and in particular the journey I wrote about in Sinning, has taught me that mostly, “stuff” is better out than in. I’m not great at release, but solo walking sometimes allows it. For me, anyway. The snail’s chemin, slow, solitary and steady under generous skies, showed me that I could walk myself back into myself – changed, but not diminished. Whole…
Then, at road’s end, in a tiny village called Uhart-Mixe, I was rewarded with a welcoming Gite all to myself, a storybook spire directly across the main square, sun on golden stones, and scrumptious bread and goat cheese to fortify the feet. Ahhhh…..
Later, washed and laundered, I wandering to the village graveyard, where I was struck by the intensity of the mourners’ plaques commemorating family connections to the countryside I’d walked through. The memorials were so bound to place. I couldn’t help but feel, in that slow corner of the world, the centuries-deep affinity of those who had died to their bountiful land.
Maybe it was the late summer afternoon silence and the early arrival of the moon, or the church bell sounding, or the whiff of honeysuckle, but I found myself teary again, this time in gratitude for all who have gone before, and for all that we carry in our snail-packs…
I slept deep and long that night.
Back home in Australia, I went to an exhibition of photographs by Caroline Baum. She is mostly known as a writer, book reviewer, journalist and interviewer. But she is also a photographer and designer, and is obsessed with the sea-snails that make their home on rocks along the coast just south of Sydney. She photographs their trails, and has come to know them intimately. A small divergence might be due to the mating dance of a couple. The different colours underneath relate to mineral content and ocean movements and oh so much more…
To hear her talk of her snails is to hear the same kind of intimate connection to place that I felt in that Basque village. Caro’s tiny, watery snails sketch our vast continent into the sand on their rocky home. They make songlines that look like paintings made by Aboriginal artists. And Caroline has captured these snail visions at their most poetic and evocative.
My photos of the works can’t possibly do them justice, but hopefully you will get a sense of their wonder. Standing in front of Caroline’s works, I was struck again by the importance of the snail’s teachings. Humility. Small gentle movements. Mapping by the tiniest of increments, yet always inching forward. Intent on a singular path. Slow…slow and even and calm…
That is what I see anyway. It might all be my projection. Being a snail might be torrid and anxious and fraught! But for now, the lessons I take from these small creatures are profound. I’m better for them, I think…I hope…
Finally, that’s all we can ask, I guess. To get better…inch by inch….
22 thoughts on “The Ways of the Snail”
Ailsa I think we could all have a little snail time in our lives. We are all victims of a fast and furious life which is passing way too quickly to appreciate each other and our environment.
Hi Joan. I agree. It’s tricky, isn’t it? The world rewards us so well for rushing and ticking boxes and “making things happen”. I fall victim to it constantly. But a snail is a very kind reminder. Hope you spot a few in the moments when you are racing. Thanks for stopping by. xxxxx
Ailsa: Lovely “road-less-travelled” tale – the way of the snail! My wife and I are recently back from travels through the south-east of the US starting in Dallas, the western Caribbean including George Town on Grand Cayman – kinfolk in both those places adding another non-tourist dimension – and Savannah – Mexico-city and Cuba – and driving from Miami to New Orleans.Not all in that order – but you get the drift – and though they are all well-known places – what we did in them – while staying out-of-downtown in AirBnB – was lots of walking. And a lot of it in paths-less-travelled, too. Your reflective piece has just drawn that to my attention. We spent a day walking into the Valley of the Sugar Refineries out of Trínidad (in Cuba) – eventually only the two of us – and cattle in the fields – the occasional horses or vehicle with other tourists trotting or driving by. Maybe we walked 20 kms – bird calls – and silence. And the long walk from the end of the bus-line out of Savannah in Georgia – to the Gates of the Wormsloe Estate (early 18th century) and its century-old mile-long avenue of Live Oaks – and we were the only ones walking that beautiful cathedral nave of trees. I’d never heard of Live Oaks before this visit to the US south-east – but how beautiful! My wife reminds me that it was a film location – Forest Gump runs along this avenue in the movie of the same name. We did see a bridal photography session on our return walk near the gates – it is clearly a noted site.
Our day at the Temples to the Moon and Sun at Teotihuacán outside Mexico-city, too, involved lots of walking and climbing – on a very quiet day just 10 days after the crowds there on the day of the spring equinox – when our bridesmaid and husband were there…
Last month we had a couple of weeks in the truly beautiful north Borneo Malaysian state of Sabah – and lots of opportunities for walking – especially in the cooler highland parts – and on some memorial parts of the terrible Sandakan (pron. Sun-Dukkan) to Ranau (in front of Mt Kinabalu – 4,095 metres) Death March(es) of 1945 – the 2400+ deaths of Aussies and British PoWs. That was time for reflection and teary eyes – believe me – the more so when I found two UK names – clearly at some stage way back – kinsmen of mine. There is a Sandakan Death March Memorial in Tamworth which I visited 10 days ago (the town where I grew up) as well as one in Brisbane, three others in NSW – one in Melbourne – from the mid-1990s – and another in W.A. – remembering from which regions of Australia those young men enlisted.
The other thing I wanted to respond to but I don’t actually know how properly do so – is to comment on your still so immediate grieving – all I can say is commiserations – and keep on putting one foot in front of the other!
Dear Jim. You never fail to bring a story and an adventure to this little corner of the digisphere. Thanks for such an amazing travelogue and for all the temptations in it. So full. I remember being mesmerised by the Sandakan story when I came across it at the Australian War memorial some years ago. Many tears shed. This morning I heard about some concerts that are being held to commemorate the bagpipers who went over the top at the Somme. So many pipers lost in wars – all these stories that keep emerging from battles we thought we had understood.
Thanks for your gentle commiserations too. You are kind. The days are getting better, and there is NO doubt that my walk helped. I’m already planning another. Space to grieve without infecting everyone else’s life with it. And beauty…the great healer.
Thank you again for your generous yarns. Ailsa x
Lovely Ailsa. Thank you. x
Thanks Brian. For stopping by and for giving me time. x
Dear Ailsa, just loved this post and the wonderful pics that are amongst it. Have also enjoyed listening to you with Macca last week and this morning. Not going to ramble on but am enjoying your superb pics on insta and your life seems to be coming together again. Much love from us , Bertina xxxxxxxxx
Helloooo Bertina! Thanks so much for saying hi, and for your ongoing support. I love these little windows into each others lives, courtesy of the digital world. Not too much! Just kindness in small bites. Yes, life is moving forward, as the politicians say. Hope that yours is full and happy as ever. xxxxxx
Dear Ailsa – so great that your life is so full. This morning I am listening to you as Macca’s special guest. Maybe you can do the job full time when Ian takes his summer break.
Also managed to catch you at the Sydney Writers Festival. Many of the friends of Camino – Sydney Pilgrims were in attendance.
I am so glad you are enjoying the Macca life! I’ve had an amazing welcome from him and Lee, but I can’t imagine anyone could ever take over from him. He is unique. A once-off. And besides, you’d need to have a Lee to complete the team, and she is also truly astonishing. I’ve never met anyone with such a memory for people and places and stories and facts. They are formidable.
Hope you enjoyed the Festival too. It was another way in which I was made to feel “at home” in Sydney – a kind of professional welcome. I chaired five sessions and enjoyed them all.
Thanks for your encouragement and support. Ailsa x
Beautiful post, Ailsa – all hail slow! Sounds like a wonderful journey off the beaten path… X
Oh thanks Kelly! How lovely to bump into you here! It was such a glorious journey. I loved it, every step – and was fortified with every step. Love, Ailsa xxxx
As always Ailsa … your descriptive, thoughtful writing captures my heart and mind. A beautiful ‘article’ with most impressive pictures.
And as always, Adrian, your words are kind and supportive and generous. Thank you for stopping by and for your en-courage-ment. Ailsa x
Dear Ailsa, I was enchanted to read of your journeying through France and your commemorative walk on the snail trail. It was wonderfully evocative and I was left hoping there is a book waiting to be born from you again. I am truly delighted to hear, that even though your grieving is still there, that the walk helped and you are safely back in Australia amongst your pursuits. I loved the pictures of the paintings and your own pictures from France – really lovely, thank you. I wish you continued healing and joy. From Lainey in Dublin. PS Look forward to more future posts. . . . . .
You are so lovely to come and leave such encouragement and kindness. Thanks so much. I’m really glad the little snails resonated. Maybe you will have to come and see the sea snails for yourself! They are a delight.
Love and gratitude,
Thanks for the insights on the snail. On my second Camino I deliberately slowed down and found it great to take it all in and relish everything along the way.
Hi Patsy. We snails can still have a good time! Keep on relishing and thanks for the support. Ailsa x
Lovely to wake up to your post Ailsa.
Enjoying your time on air, with Macca, immensely.
You are lovely. Thank you. Glad that a snail on waking didn’t make you squirm!!! With gratitude and every wish for kind days. Ailsa xxxx
Hi dear Ailsa,
I loved your snail post, and in the way you always seem to resonate with what’s happening for me, I too have had to like a snail in past five weeks. I had two medical mishaps within days of each other, the latter of which was fracturing my left wrist. Hurrying, ( ah, yes) over small fence, I tripped and put my arm out to save me and SNAP! After somewhat belated and confused diagnosis of the damage, I underwent “carpentry” with plate, screws etc and have had to slow down my life, while I learnt “disarming” humility, patience and gratitude for others’ help as I mend. The wrist is healing – slowly – and I have had the rude shock of slowing down to snail’s pace. It’s not so bad – lounging about reading and healing and stretching reluctant tendons back into action . But it is v frustrating, to be deprved of spontaneity of action – and not being able to drive or do up my bra. Thankfully Pete, my beloved man slave has been solid and sweet through it all.
Another lesson. I am not invincible. I need people and I have been the recipient of the kindest and most thoughtful of gestures, words and love as I convalesce. I hope this snail’s pace can see me leave a more loving, sympathetic trail from here on. Do hope to see you at BBWF on the weekend.
Oh Julie, this is NOT the way one should learn about slow. I’m so sorry. You sound incredibly chipper but it can’t have been all beer and skittles. Lovely that you have a good man to shoulder some of the burden – no puns intended.
I so hope I see you at the Festival. I’m now doing a panel at 2.45pm on Saturday, as Cheryl Strayed had to pull out due to a family crisis. I’m being understudy. So if nowhere else, hopefully I can catch you after that. Take good care and go gently. xxxxx