Friday, October 22, 2010

Considering the snail

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth's dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail's fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.

Thom Gunn

Not sure I'm going with this--I never am--but I saw something in August I do not (and cannot) understand. Maybe someone out there can help me.

I have a large jar holding pond water that's been in B362 for years now. It sits on the windowsill where my lambs can witness generations of snails and duckweed and daphnia and planaria when they're less than inspired by memorizing biomes or parts of the cell ingloriously reduced to human activities. ("The mitochondria are the factories of the cell." *clumk*)


Here's something your grandma may have neglected to tell you. As you age, the "higher" functions, the jobs run by the cortical parts of the brain, start to sputter a bit. Edges start to blur.

It would be scarier if it happened quickly, but it's mercifully gradual.
It's still bloody scary.

Meanwhile, the amygdala, the ancient part of our brain that connects fear and subconscious memory, keeps on gliding through life like a shark's fin gliding through a calm bay at sunset--steady, stealthy, and, in its own way, beautiful.

I've taken a few bumps on the head, sustained at least 5 concussions, so you may want to judge this by someone whose led a more sane life. Or maybe you might want to chat with the snails. Or maybe you want to read the works by the greats on their fading years--they practically get giddy on death.

I'm just a teacher in high school who spends too much time staring at pond water in jars, and I share what I see.

And this is what I saw.

On a late August afternoon, I visited my classroom, something I do regularly even in August.

About a dozen snails lay evenly spaced around the jar of pond water, as though place there by the Almighty Himself. All were a foot away from the jar. All were dead.

Now I can hypothesize until the next tide ebbs, but my suspicion is that the conditions in the jar got intolerable for the snails. They left the "pond" en masse, and died nearly simultaneously.

Not sure why a few chose to stay in the jar (and are alive as I write), nor why this particular Jim Jones moment never happened before, nor since. But it happened.

And I wondered (as I will) what could drive a sentient being from its home. And I dwelled on fear and failing light and all the other nonsense getting older entails (while we pretend otherwise), and I wondered if snails even had amygdalas.

I do. My amygdala grows stronger every day as the cortical tissues withers away. The reptilian brain underneath rises up now, and fear frames the incipient fog.

Considering the Snail is by Thom Gunn who passed through his snail moments back in 2004.
The snail eyestalk is really a slug that was wandering near or back stoop.

The poem was suggested by Mary Ann Reilly, a fine arts photographer whose work can be seen here.


John Spencer said...

Our class lizard died.

The kids had grown attached to him and applied every possible anthropomorphism to him.

At times, it was frightening to hear them talk to Mr. Pancho.

"I know what it's like to be in a glass and have people staring at you. It's how I feel on the football field," a boy says.

"I miss my mom, too, Mr. Pancho. I don't live in a classroom, but a group home doesn't feel all that different."

I'd catch the conversations in transitions - moments during group work when they'd stop by the drinking fountain or as we gathered for lunch and a kid would linger.

I think they were sad when he died, partially because of him, but partially because they had seen death (most of them) and an animal death isn't all that different from our own death. Lifeless is scary, even if it is a lizard.

I'm still not sure if I should have brought the animal into my class. Don't get me wrong. They aced the science test (best scores in the district) and they understood adaptations on a deep level. But I wrestle with whether or not it was right to have captivity right there in my classroom (and whether that's what school is, in and of itself) and whether it was okay to invite the potential for death and to talk about death and everything that goes with it - the mystery and the blasphemy and the superstition and all.

Tom G said...

Hi, I've been reading your blog for a while and I really enjoy your writing.

Being from the UK though, I never paid enough attention to american school-based TV shows to be able to work out what 'grades' mean in terms of ages.

I'm slightly unsure of the age group you are teaching, and I feel like that would help me picture the classroom better if you could tell me?

nashworld said...

I have massive upside-down glass water-cooler jar for the same purpose. I sent two kids home with it in 1994 to stuff it full of pondmuck. That jar now resides in Erin's classroom on a warm and well-lit windowsill.

I still contains the DNA of generations of those original beasties. Added to that have been addition after addition of leftover critters from the lab... amoebas, paramecium, blepharisma, volvox, (about 20 other species of algae), and, wow... far to many wonderful things to name here.

The inevitable boom and bust of different populations over time provided a running discussion woven through the years. The things we observed within that one little captive ecosystem generated a really respectable number of excellent questions. Some of those questions eventually led to controlled studies elsewhere in the lab. A smaller set of those even led to national travel to present findings at ISEF or JSHS.

These are the "things" of a biology classroom that no one outside of the field really sees upon visiting the room. Sure, these things look "sciency" and fitting for the place, but precious few who wonder in for a ten minute visit could ever absorb what we learned from those little windows into life. Bigfat glass jars: required biology room furniture in my opinion. It's too sad how few actually attend to such tasks. Hey- if it isn't explicitly "in the curriculum," or "on the state test," then why bother, right? That's a pretty shortsighted conclusion even given all of the external constraints on what we do today. However, I'd argue that it isn't much of an excuse. Above all, attend to what is right by kids and their learning. Also... and also is a key word here... attend to the test.

Speaking of understanding the fading years via the works of greats... I recently dragged "After Apple Picking" back off the shelf after standing on a ladder painting up the entirety of one crisp autumn day. Though I didn't see an single apple that day, the parallels made me do it. I love how the brain allows us to subconsciously reach back like that from time to time to make interesting connections.

And furthermore... being able to connect the odd things above with another human who will appreciate them is also rather interesting to say the least.

John Spencer said...

Wow, nashworld, you actually managed to write a longer comment than me :)

I wonder what it's like for a blogger to get comments that are, in their own right, long enough to be a full blog post.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I get why anthropomorphizing can get out of hand, it is a bit of conceit that we refuse to give animals credit for anything. I know you know this, but a lot of folk don't.

I wrestle with the captivity issue as well--I tend to rotate my animals. I get upset when one of my students injures a sowbug, and I cringe when I spill pond water, knowing what can be found in even the tiniest drop.

Death is, and will be. Can't avoid it in biology class. Doubt it should be avoided in any class. Death makes obligations make sense.

I love your stories. Feel free to cross-post your responses here on your blog. I write because I need to, I enjoy it because of the responses I get.

Dear Tom G,

Thank you for the kind words.

Sophomores here are in their 11th year of schooling, and average 15 years old. They are at the peak of adolescent magical thinking, a perfect time to introduce science.

Dear Sean,

My pond water on the sill matters more than anything else I can do in the classroom. Yesterday I was staring into it as the sun was setting. (I was alone in the room--my colleagues think I'm a lunatic as it is, no need to feed the fire.)

Connecting with another mad man is interesting indeed. Blame our cultural history, blame our age, blame faulty frontal lobes, it matters not.

I will need to find "After Apple Picking." Given my age and my family history, odds are overwhelmingly in favor of me kicking before you. I'll keep you posted. =)

momomom said...

You know me, ignore the big questions...I suspect the water is getting acidic or low in oxygen.

I need some pond water for winter gazing. I think I have a bottle for it, and ponds aplenty.

Another fun thing is to just put some forest floor dirt in a jar and watch what happens from bugs to mushrooms.

I'm growing Alpine Strawberries from seed this winter. Wish me luck. They are very challenging.

doyle said...

Dear momomom,

Oh, I suspected those as well--or maybe the whole thing just got too warm. The snails left symmetrically in a radial pattern.

I just had a couple of soldier flies fly out of the dirt in our roly-poly tank. I have a tiny spider web in there now as well.

No mushrooms yet.

Good luck with the strawberries! They can't be any more challenging than flying squirrels! (I take the easy way with strawberries--put a few plants in and watch them take over.)