My friend Alison turned me on to this fascinating book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, which I highly recommend. It represents all that I love about natural history and the power of observation and reflection. From her website:
In The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey tells the inspiring and intimate story of her uncommon encounter with a Neohelix albolabris—a common forest snail. While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches as the snail takes up residence on her nightstand. Intrigued by its molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making ability, hydraulic locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing an engaging look into the curious life of this overlooked and underappreciated small animal. She comes to a greater understanding of the interconnections between species and her own human place in the natural world. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a remarkable journey of survival and resilience, showing us how a small part of the natural world illuminates our own human existence.
“Bailey’s unexpected journey with a gastropod is a beautiful meditation on life, nature and time, and a poignant reminder of how the only measure of any of this is what we do with it.” —Tania Aebi, author of Maiden Voyage
“An exquisite meditation on the restorative connection between nature and humans . . . the writing is pristine and clear, with sentences of stunning lyrical beauty . . . Bailey’s slim book is as richly layered as the soil she lays down in the snail’s terrarium: loamy, potent, and regenerative.” —Huffington Post
A September of stillness
While I had nowhere near the same level of illness that Elisabeth had to contend with, I was completely drained after the events of the summer (see June, July and August posts). In early September, my parents left for most of the month, leaving me in charge of their house, the blueberry farm, an old creaky dog, and my uncle and aunt’s young cat that was recovering from a broken leg.
In retrospect, I realized that the last year had been spent coming up to Oregon to do three to four weeks of intense building and then I would return to California and my little apartment for a few months, a built-in balancing mechanism. I had very mixed feelings of living alone. There wasn’t a tight community of neighbors I was bonded with so it could feel isolating in an urban environment, but I loved having the space and relative quiet to recharge, think about my tiny house and what it meant from a bit of a distance, and revive my wellspring of creativity. Now that I had moved to Oregon, I had my community, but felt a constant mantra to keep building, with no time or space for reflection. I realized I’d lost the magic and my tiny house mojo (I suspect most tiny house builders experience this at some point). I had neglected to nourish my inner introvert.
1. to supply what is necessary for life, health and growth
2. to strengthen, build up, promote
3. to cherish, foster, keep dreams alive
I needed to recuperate and figure out why I had so little energy, so for a month I took a staycation, my own little personal retreat. I didn’t watch television, listen to the radio, check Facebook or follow any news. I went for long walks and short runs, did extensive sessions of restorative yoga, read, and slept…a lot. My waking hours were defined by when the animals needed to be fed and when the irrigation sprinklers required rotating, as well as the constant mowing: the combination of perpetual sun and dutiful watering resulted in a ridiculously well-nourished and robust grass organism. With a brain that couldn’t seem to turn over, I was quite content to go round and round the lawn on the sit down mower, up and down the rows of blueberries. There never seemed to be big enough blocks of time to work on my house, nor did I have any desire to. I have a backlog of blog posts to catch up on but I couldn’t find the inspiration to write. My creative well had run dry. I existed, but not much beyond that.
My world became quite small. By choice, I hardly talked to anybody the whole month. I cocooned. I rarely even left the property. As I took Lucy on very slow walks around the barn and through the blueberries, there was a lot of time to look at the little things. I discovered which blackberry bushes the quail liked to gather under, rustling dried leaves officiously like papers shuffled as court is called to order. Twice I flushed a stunning copper-colored pheasant.
The remaining blueberries, hanging like little shrunken heads, were picked clean practically overnight by waves of incoming flocks of goldfinches, starlings, sparrows, and chickadees (fortunately, their greedy fondness for cherries keeps them at bay during the growing season; they only turn to blueberries when that is all that is left in the cupboard, like sad boxes of All-Bran). A variety of strange and delicate mushrooms sprouted up between the irrigated rows. (Interestingly, mushrooms are a favorite of wild snails. Elisabeth’s would consume a portobello fifty times it’s own size, a slice a week, one tiny bite at a time using its 2,640 teeth, arrayed in rows like a woodworker’s rasp.)
The old pasture behind the barn, which was not irrigated, was parched and dry in the heat, though some leaves had started to fall, a sign that the seasons were chomping at the bit to change, if the weather would just cooperate. I watched ground squirrels rooting for acorns, stuffing cheeks full to bursting, dive bombed by little juncos (what had the squirrels done to them?). Flickers and jays swooped through the trees, squawking and heckling. Everyone was a little irritable waiting for the rain.
It was wonderful having a cat around again, if only temporarily. Scout, Lucy and I lived in a state of symbiosis. They were dependent on me for food and waste removal, and I depended on them for companionship (which they needed too, both from me and from each other, though they wouldn’t admit it). A mutually beneficial arrangement.
And related to interdependencies, I did a lot of research into food and the complex balance of stress hormones (for more information, see It Starts With Food and The Paleo Approach). I went on a strict paleo diet (no dairy, grains, sugar, legumes, or alcohol, but lots of vegetables, moderate protein and healthy fats, and some fruit). I learned how to make ghee and bone broth, how to increase my nutrient and mineral absorption. There is a lot of evidence that this kind of low carb, whole food eating can revert the effects of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis, among many, many others. It took awhile but I do feel better (though I’ve backed off being quite so strict since I found it hard to adhere to while I’m in the throes of building). I dropped 15 pounds without even trying.
Flourishing in the fall (fungus among us)
By October, both my parents and the rains returned. Just in time; I was starting to bounce off the walls from my self-imposed isolation and the seemingly endless heat. Within a couple days, the dry, sunburnt grass in the back pasture was replaced with a carpet of tender green shoots.
One day Dad went out and came back with permits for us to hunt mushrooms in the national forest. I’ve never gone mushroom hunting before but it sounded fun. He scared up a French folding knife, a brush, and an old compass for me, and explained how chanterelles came up after the first rains and disappeared with the first frost. We poured over the weather reports to find a good day within this window of opportunity and together we set out, driving to a remote logging road.
A chanterelle is also the highest string of a violin or lute on which the melody, or chant, is usually played. I love the idea of these little forest nymphs singing to each other just after we lumber away. In Germany, they go by the delightful name of Pfifferling.
Besides being so tasty, chanterelles are relatively high in vitamin C, very high in potassium, and one of the richest known sources of vitamin D. They grow in a symbiotic relationship with living trees, Douglas fir and Western hemlock in the Pacific Northwest. The chanterelles gather moisture and minerals to feed the trees and, in return, the trees offer photosynthesized carbohydrates to the chanterelles (no low carb diet for them!).
After two decades in central California, which doesn’t really have much of an autumn and hardly any rain of late, I soaked up the drizzle like moss. Inhaling the scents of fir and loam, and something like ripe pear, I began to feel replenished.
woman in the woods
touching the base
~ Jane Reichhold
While most of nature began to go dormant and hibernate, I, out of season, continued to emerge from my cocoon. Freed from farm and animal duties, I made trips into Portland for a taste of city life.
I had a lovely dinner with several friends, five dogs, and fire in the fireplace. Chicken soup soothed our souls (although one of the dogs had nabbed the chicken off the counter before it made into the pot). In an odd coincidence, Katy had just collected chanterelles the day after I did in nearly the same spot. She sauteed up panful after panful. It was a feast.
Sal has a staghorn fern growing on a board. It’s an epiphyte, not needing to be rooted in soil. In nature, it grows suspended on rocks and trees, it’s lower fronds bending around and securing it in place as the fronds die off. It’s non-parasitic on its host, getting minerals and nutrients from the air and water captured in the upper fronds. It also collects leaf litter and detritus falling from the canopy above to make a loamy soil in its hollow. This becomes another source of nutrients, not only for itself but for other organisms living high in the air within its suspended embrace, including animals, fungi, bacteria, and myxomycetes (a more heroic name for slime moulds). Since this one is living indoors, Sal throws a banana peel into it every once in awhile so that it will get enough potassium.
Speaking of trees and boards, I discovered a new passion. After my long months of rough carpentry, I decided I needed to learn something about the finer aspects of woodworking in preparation for my interior cabinetry. So I started taking classes and found a whole new world of incredible hand tools and beautiful grain and design. It’s so tactile and, while there is a lot of repetitive work chiseling and planing, I find it very meditative.
Back in the side saddle
With one neighbor coming up with inventive pulley systems to hoist siding up on a shed, another neighbor painting his house in record time, and ribbing from my friends ringing in my ears, I knew I had to get back to work. And now I felt ready.
[Most of what follows is focused on the technical aspects of siding. If that doesn’t interest you, skip down to the next section.]
The four faces of Naj Haus
I still have to get the top row on each side installed (need Steffen’s help with that since it’s a little tricky), screw everything down, and plug the sill holes, but I can’t tell you what a relief it is to finally be about done with the exterior!
I feel like I’m just meeting my house for the first time, so without further ado, let me introduce you as well:
Nourish the dreams of tiny grass
All of life is about interdependencies and balance. Sun can grow grass in the presence of water or parch it out of existence during a drought. The staghorn fern supports a fungus high in a forest canopy, a tiny chanterelle nourishes a giant fir tree down at its base. Acorns become oak trees, producing leaves that become loamy life-supporting soil and new acorns that feed the squirrels, who then give us delight when they knock on the door. Cortisol, insulin, leptin, glucagon and other metabolic hormones perform an intricate dance in our bodies so that we can turn the food we eat into energy we can use. Tiny houses tethered to larger houses involve complex negotiations of community and independence. There is a delicate balance, particularly among introverts, of expending energy and the need to recharge. All of these symbiotic and interwoven relationships can represent great health and strength or be disrupted, knocked out of balance, ease becoming disease.
May you find the time to be still and observe, to have some humility around our place in the natural world, and to nourish the dreams of tiny grass. You will find that, in return, these reflections will feed your body and your soul.
Spring turned to summer, summer turned to fall, and the snow came, and the snail and its offspring were still much in my thoughts. The original snail had been the best of companions; it never asked me questions I couldn’t answer, nor did it have expectations I couldn’t fulfill. I had watched it adapt to changed circumstances and persevere. Naturally solitary and slow paced, it had entertained and taught me, and was beautiful to watch as it glided silently along, leading me through a dark time into a world beyond that of my own species. The snail had been a true mentor; its tiny existence had sustained me.
~ Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating