In Praise of Slowness and All Things Snails

“And the snail, the peaceful bourgeois of the narrow trail, contemplates the landscape.”
Federico Garcia Lorca

Run, rest, run…yet, how often do we consider pace? A snail’s progress has much to offer. Their even pace has defined our notions of movement and fired our imaginations. (Notwithstanding their wonderful absence of feet.)

We don’t see many snails at our third-floor walk-up. When I found a mottled shell, occupied, in our window box, I was elated. She (snails are hermaphrodites, thus I felt her gender was my prerogative) arrived by way of herb pots, the black mint and marjoram. We nodded acquaintance, I showed her around.

Carefully, very carefully, I slipped her onto a spoon. Ah yes because a snail is not a slug in a shell. A snail without a shell or even a punctured shell will die. Shells are astoundingly light and delicate.

As we went, she absorbed the sights, moving her head, squirming in the shaded kitchen and shrinking in the sunny spare room. I moved slowly, evenly, and with considered steps. She twiddled rapturously as we passed the bright-blue work of English ceramicist Fenella Elms.

I tipped the spoon, and she took off across the Perspex, crossing the patterned small discs with the ease and rhythm inherent in the piece itself. She moved with determination and purpose befitting our understanding of snails.

"Flow" by Fenella Elms featured in "In Praise of Slowness and All Things Snails."
Our snail courses across stained porcelain discs of Fenella Elms‘ “Flow.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Pace is not the same as a break, although they have similar effect. A break is rest, an exhale or inhale. Pace, especially an slow, even one, is how we go where we go. The benefits of commanding pace are subtle but endearing. Steadiness goes hand in hand with a fixed gaze, focusing on what is meaningful and ignoring the extraneous.

In Federico Garcia Lorca’s marvelous and awfully existential The Dialogue of Two Snails,1 the snail is an adventurous soul, driven by a simple, authentic need:

And the snail, the peaceful
bourgeois of the narrow trail,
contemplates the landscape.
The divine serenity
of Nature
gave him courage and faith,
and forgetting the troubles
of his home, he longed
to see the end of the path.

My little snail set a beautiful pace, I wanted to see what she’d do with edges and corners. I introduced her to Isobel Egan’s “Miniature Spaces,”2 one of my favorite pieces whose removable boxes I rearrange to suit my moods. The porcelain is cold and fragile. To avoid breakage, I have to move them slowly, it’s an exercise in pace. They make a lovely noise, scraping against one another.

The snail sniffed, cautious, contemplative, seeking the best path. She moved quite slowly but she picked up the longer she remained. Ever guarded, however.

"Miniature Spaces" by Isobel Egan featured in "In Praise of Slowness and All Things Snails."
“Miniature Spaces” by Irish ceramist Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Virginia Woolf, in her inimitable modern way, paid homage to the determined snail in her short story “Kew Gardens:”3

Brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat, blade-like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast crumpled surfaces of a thin cracking texture – all these objects lay across the snail’s progress between one stalk and another to his goal.

How comforting that at any point in time, millions of snails are moving slowly towards their most desired end.

Snails converge on a seeding agapanthus. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

My snail was pooped. She had covered tens of inches.

I put a measure of soil in the spoon and scooped her up. We spoke softly of art, style, color and texture, rocks and pine cones, eternity and death. We sniffed spices and marveled at the freezer. Slowly and evenly I let her rest in a damp sink which she loved. I had never traced my home so carefully, or the precious things I keep nearby.

Time passed, I have no idea how much. Tens of minutes in praise of slowness. We walk paths in order to see, I walked her path today. I returned her to the thin lip of the herb box and wiped the spoon with disinfectant. What is it about snails that ignites reverence? Their consistency?

American modern poet, Marianne Moore, praises a snail’s singular style in her observational poem “To a Snail…”4

If “compression is the first grace of style,” you have it.
Contractility is a virtue as modesty is a virtue.

[…]

the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

The absence of feet, an occipital horn, those sniffing eyes. Our snail remained (ever constant) throughout the summer, particularly found of the majoram, which thrived once she left. I say “left” because no shell remained.

Her path continued to her most desired end.

The Deep, Aching Longing for the Impossible

“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor.”
Mary Oliver

Quite early in the process of reading a bit of Housman’s (admittedly forlorn) poetry, I was interrupted by memory: a short dirt road, warmed by a sunny, unblemished sky, tall oaks on one side, fields on the other. The air sweet and thick. Cicadas chirring.

Summer’s end.

Country road, Michigan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I couldn’t stop longing for the impossible, that sunny short road. From Rimbaud: “Ah! That life of my childhood, the high road in all weathers…”1

There is something between the bars of poetry, memoirs, pictures—a pattern lacking common description, a feeling thrown against the backdrop of life. It works your nerves. It is so often mentioned that it bears collecting: this deep, aching longing for the impossible. A place we cannot go or return.

In her most recent collection of poems and essays, “Upstream,” the ever-contemplative American poet Mary Oliver wrote that she longed “to be lost again, as long ago.”2 Her words, compelling but opaque, suggest a need for space. Oliver walked upstream—did she find what she sought?

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

English poet A.E. Housman, whose writing sparked my dirt roads, circled Cambridge University on daily walks. A preeminent classics professor in the early 20th century and a less-distinguished poet of longing (he carried a lifelong unrequited love for his heterosexual roommate), Housman took well-paced, lengthy steps marking boundaries where longing could exist.

In periods of acute feeling, such as after his love moved to India, when his longing spilled over into poetry. From “The Land of Lost Content”:3

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A place we cannot return to is also a place where we can never arrive.

This impossible longing is further embodied in Doris Lessing’s short story “To Room Nineteen.”4 A woman (who feels achingly familiar)—dominated by the needs of children, family, husband, home, life—lives “in a state of mind she could not own.” She quietly, futilely, seeks space for existence. In a nondescript small hotel, she finds it: perfect nothingness, anonymity. Lessing won’t tell us what her character does in the room; so complete is the hide. Ultimately, however, as the title suggests, our heroine is ever traveling, never arriving.

Poet John Clare, who, like Housman, wrote without affectation, gazed on a place forever gone and recalled:5

Often did I stop to gaze
On each spot once dear to me
Known mong those rememberd days
Of banishd happy infancy
Often did I view the shade
Where once a nest my eyes did fill
And often markd the place I playd
At ‘roley poley’ down the hill

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“The place we playd…”

The French capture this longing in pitch-perfect phase: Mal du pays. Homesickness, but more than homesickness, a deep longing for places embedded in time.6 Time is critical, time prevents us from returning. I stood on my road, even took a photo. But I will never return to the road as the child who first saw it. I will never return to the road I’ve kept in memory. That road simply doesn’t exist. The past—what Oliver beautifully termed “as it was long ago”—is no longer.

In her memoirs, novelist Penelope Lively faced the “as it was long ago” with bold honesty:7

It is gone, it cannot be recovered. It is swamped, drowned out by adult knowledge. That child self is an alien; I have still some glimmer of what she saw, but her mind is unreachable; I know too much, seventy years on.

Perhaps our burden is to long, yes, but not despair. We might not return or arrive at then and there, but we can always be now and here.

What is Presence? Five Examples.

“Every figure has presence. You can barely have any standing object which doesn’t.”
Barbara Hepworth

Dorothy Parker once compared Hemingway to the Grand Canyon.1 Indeed, there is something about Hemingway. Something in his writing, his journals. He was the kind of man who climbed stairs to write and was captivated by bullfights. But what was he like?

In her inimitable style, Parker responds: He was grand. Hemingway had presence. Presence is strongly felt and broadly defined.

Modernist British sculptor Barbara Hepworth saw presence in every physical thing.2 Maya Angelou saw presence as something to learn and perfect. I define presence thus: To the question “What does it feel like to stand next to this person?” presence answers, “It feels grand.”

“Two Turning Forms” and other work by Barbara Hepworth. Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Sidney Lumet on Katharine Hepburn

Director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network) recalls the first time he met Katharine Hepburn:3

When we first met, on Long Day’s Journey into Night… I stepped through the doors of what seemed to me a fifty-foot living room. She stood at the opposite end of the room and started toward me. We’d covered about half the distance when she said, ‘When do you want to start rehearsal?’ (No ‘Hello’ or ‘How do you do?’) ‘September nineteenth,’ I said. ‘I can’t start till the twenty-sixth,’ she said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because then,’ she said, ‘you’d know more about the script than I would.’

Michael Peppiatt on Francis Bacon

Peppiatt, a journalist and writer, became Francis Bacon’s key biographer in the 1960s.4

A small man is sitting just behind me on a stool by the bar, talking in an exaggeratedly posh, camp voice and waving his cigarette holder about. He is oddly dressed, in a stained sweater and ancient trousers, with his head nestling in the upturned collar of a grubby shearling jacket. I don’t remember seeing him come in, but now he looks as if he has always been there, as if he were the pub’s mascot, addressing his running commentary to the whole room rather than anyone in particular. I recognize him right away … I edge closer … and blurt out my request for an introduction.

“Two Turning Forms” by Barbara Hepworth, Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Stephen Fry on Emma Thompson

Fry and Thompson became friends and co-performers in the well-known comedic troupe, The Footlights, during their Cambridge University days. Fry on his classmate:5

She seemed, like Athene, to have arrived in the world fully armed. Her voice, her movement, her clarity, ease, poise, wit…well, you had to be there… This girl was really something. Medium height with a perfect English complexion, she was gravely beautiful, extraordinarily funny and commandingly assured by beyond her years. Her name, the programme told me, was Emma Thompson.

Maya Angelou on her mother

In Letter to My Daughter, Angelou writes about her mother helping her give birth.

She crawled up on the delivery table with me and had me bend my legs. She put her shoulder against my knee and told me dirty stories. When the pains came she told me the punch line of the stories, and as I laughed, she told me, ‘Bear down.’ When the baby started coming, my little mother jumped off the table, and seeing him emerge she shouted, ‘Here he comes and he had black hair.’ … When the baby was delivered, my mother caught him. She and the other nurses cleaned him and wrapped him in a blanket, and she brought him to me. ‘Here, my baby, here’s your beautiful baby.

Douglas Adams on the Rwandan Mountain Gorilla

In 1988, Douglas Adams, beloved creator of the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, joined zoologist Mark Carwardine on an excursion around the world to find endangered species.6 Their encounter with a Rwandan mountain gorilla bears mention.

The feeling I had looking at my first silverback gorilla in the world was vertiginous. It was as if there was something I was meant to do, some reaction that was expected of me, and I didn’t know what it was or how to do it. My modern mind was simply saying, ‘Run away!’ but all I could do was stand, trembling, and stare. The right moment for something seemed to slip away and fall into an unbridgeable gulf between us, and the gorilla, meanwhile, seemed to notice that we had been busy photographing its dung and merely stalked off in to the undergrowth.

“Idol” by Barbara Hepworth, Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What is presence? Whatever it is, it is not embellished or fancy. It isn’t persona.

Presence is real, surprising, and generous.

Theater legend Anna Deavere Smith wrote a wonderfully enlightening book called Letters to a Young Artist encouraging young artists to find their strength and nurture that of others. She defines presence perfectly: “Presence means you hold your own space, control the space around you, and sometimes welcome others into it.”8Deavere Smith, Anna.

As Deavere Smith abounds with presence, she shall have the last word:

I saw a man in New York City in the late seventies kissing trees on a regular basis. Of course, such an action is bound to attract attention, but presence is not merely the attraction of attention. When he kissed a tree, it took my breath away. He was an older man with white hair. It was his level of commitment that gave him presence.