The class gastropods to which banana slugs belong contains a vast number of named species, making it second only to insects in overall number. Their name is dreadful, from the Greek gastro (stomach) and pod (foot) because people mistakenly decided they must be crawling along on their bellies. Further research has revealed this could not be further from the truth. Gastropods keep their livers and other digestive organs in the humps on their backs.
When you take up the study of gastropods, leading to a reflection on the banana slug, the facts and superlatives quickly boggle the mind. Their adaptations reveal a breathtaking enthusiasm for making do with whatever the current realities might be. They live in the deepest patches of sea floor, line steam vents in these depths, slouch around the woods, in estuaries, and in deserts to name a few.
Before I lived in the company of banana slugs, the lives of gastropods had rarely crossed my mind. This is but one reason living in a forest or other non-parceled place is such a good idea — unexpected things happen in nature and whether you desire it or not, it is the unexpected that brings real change. If we plan and deliberate on our experiences — travel, love, walking — we mediate them to the point where they become more synthetic than actual.
The banana slug is the state mollusc of California. I don’t know how many states appoint state molluscs. It is a fact that does not appeal to me. Once something is appointed a “State” anything, it is a sure-fire sign we see it as valueless in its essence, redeemed only as symbol: state
Flower, state rock, state poet laureate.
Climbing up the slick hill in front of our house, first to clear the roadside drain with a shovel, then to march over to our garden to survey the damage. Right by the guardrail a thick, bright yellow banana slug feasted on a eucalyptus leaf. I gently picked it up and it quickly stiffened into a slimy plug in my palm. I’d learned to be patient with the banana slug, a creature I much admire and that never ceases to dazzle. After a minute or two, as the rain began to drip with a more fierce intensity off my hood, I felt the familiar gnawing. Yes, the slug was eating my skin in its delicate, exfoliating way.
An unusually hard storm hit the shores the night before thus sending me out this morning to our community garden to check on the scarlet runner beans. As I guessed, the hastily pieced together trellis had fallen over into our neighbors kale. The wind flattened the dahlias, parsley, and lemon verbena. The sugar pumpkins sat there looking completely unfazed by it all.
In the early morning when I walk out my front door, in the gloamy light, before the sun reaches its ultra-white ascendency over the eastern rise, I find myself in the company of the banana slug. My slug memories from childhood embarrass me now. They were a source of summer entertainment in the woods of Maryland and I used to enjoy dumping salt on them. What a horrible way to die, I have since learned. Dehydrating them into a slow demise.
I walk the concrete sidewalk strewn with eucalyptus leaves and stop to observe the banana slugs. The slugs crazed, meandering path is laid out in so much slime. The slug trail and trial on concrete suggests Jackson Pollock, one of the paintings where the eye is invited to wander curvilinear paths, a line offering neither destination nor point of embarkation.
I squat on the ground. The banana slug in question is more ochre than yellow, and from its size, perhaps five inches in length, I presume it has been meandering amidst the leaves for some time. No one knows how long these slugs live in the wild, although they clock in for a couple years in man-made habitats.
The slug’s slimy path shines, a varnished trail easier to follow than Hansel’s, should any other living creature desire to follow its meanderings.
The slug must have been on a single three-foot square of concrete for some time, because the artful lines jam and loop together.
When I returned home, I had a note from a friend who had found the research of one George Evelyn Hutchinson, also known as the father of modern limnology, the scientific study of lakes and other fresh water bodies of water, both physical and biological features. She felt I would find some inspiration in this fellow traveller meandering the path of curiosity and concern.
He was born in Cambridge, became a world-renowned scientist, but did not limit his work to science. When he learned of a plan to put a military base on Aldabra Island in the Indian Ocean, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, part of the Seychelles, a raised coral atoll, the second-largest of its kind in the world, home to the world’s largest popular of giant tortoises, as well as the Aldabra rail, the largest surviving flightless bird of the Indian Ocean region. Hutchinson heard plans to build a military base there in the late 1960s, when the atoll was part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. He presented a report to the Royal Society, arguing to abandon planned destruction of the complicated biota. In the end, Hutchinson’s voice prevailed.
“I have not expressed, in the formal document, my personal feelings on the matter, namely that the intended occupation of the island is a sickening and criminal attack on what I would call a natural work of art, and bad as it is in itself, would set precedents that would impoverish the world even more completely and rapidly than is being done. I cannot believe that the people involved wish to go down in history as they well may with the epitaph, ‘They saved money.’ “
One reporter called Hutchinson a sage of enlightenment.
What I gathered about Hutchinson was all the world offered him ideas, regardless of where he was or what was transpiring in his own life. As example of this, I read how he stayed in Reno, Nevada, in 1933 for six weeks while getting a divorce from his first wife. What resulted was important observations, advancing ideas on physical and chemical conditions, with calculations on heat budgets, oxygen deficits, and a new approach to the stability of meromictic lakes. Meromictic lakes are a particular curiosity, because they lack complete water circulation, the deepest water contains no dissolved oxygen, the sediments are relatively undisturbed and therefore offer a detailed record of the history of the lake. This is water behaving like rock: permanently stratified. In what are called ordinary lakes, holomictic lakes, at least once a year surface and deep water physically mix, often driven by wind, wind driving waves across the lake’s surface.
Hutchinson coined the term meromictic in 1957 in his Treatise on Limnology. Very little can live in the deep recesses of the meromictic lake, among them are a bacteria called purple sulfur.
On August 12, 1986, the meromictic Lake Nyos in Cameroon, shaken up by winds or heavy rains or a landslide – no one knows for certain — unleashed a limnic eruption, also called an exploding lake, a rare sort of natural disaster. Imagine the placid, deep blue undisturbed waters of Lake Nyos, 1.5 square kilometres and 200 metres deep. People gazed at its wide, blue calm, thought of their youth, wondered what sort of weather lay before them. Maybe someone held a metal cup filled with sweet tea.
So. The lake a piece of a volcanic landscape called Oku, inside a maar, in a maar and basatic cinder cone landscape. Maars can be pictured easily: circular indentations caused by volcanic eruptions, then filled with water. Dramatic. Lake Nyos offers its remarkable dark blue on that morning and then the water bubbles awake, releases 80 million cubic meters of CO2. (I have seen the mechanism explained as similar to what happens inside a can of soda; through volcanic activity or decomposition of organic material, massive amounts of dissolved CO2 saturate a lake. The water pressure aids in the ready dissolution of the CO2 and like a soda, bubbles form when pressure is released, like popping the top off a bottle of Coke. See the foam, feel the pin pricks of the bubbles on your tongue.)
A cloudy mixture of carbon dioxide and water droplets forces itself aloft, some mythic cloud, one some would attribute to the wrath of a spirit woman who resided in local folklore, the cloud stretched 50 meters in thickness and took off like a jet engine, roaring skyward at 100 km an hour. It rose to 120 meters above shoreline within the crater, folding all living things into its mire. Then it settled into a downward flow, 20 to 50 kilometres, a sleep-offering vapor, swirling into at least four villages, where the people would be discovered, many still in their beds, peaceful, dead.
After the gas was released, Lake Nyos sank a meter lower in surface level and at least 1,700 people, as well as thousands of cattle, birds, and all other breathing creatures, died.
The banana slug is part of the mollusk family, ariolimax columbianus, and relatives include the delicious oyster, the literary squid, and the pesky snail, all of whom have a place in world cuisines. Banana slugs can grow to be 18 inches long, although the biggest neighborhood slug appears closer to 8 inches. Still and all, a big slug. People hate slugs, in general, and when I tell them I admire them for all their slimy wanderings, I rarely argue in a manner that convinces my audience. We think slug and we see traits that in combination disgust us: slimy, hairless, cold. What if we had to touch it. They are the hallmarks of death: slimy, hairless, cold. We think slug and imagine our mother looking down at us, curled on the couch at four on a Saturday afternoon, happily reading Misty of Chincoteague, and we hear her say, listen, my little slug, go outside into the sunshine.
Do you like slugs, I asked my son.
That’s a weird question, he said.
There aren’t many people who think slugs are amazing and extraordinary, he added with the cool certainty of teen-age years.
I explained about the dismal appeal of cold, slimy, and hairless.
Well, warm, slimy, and hairless is pretty bad, too. He said.
We decided cold and hairless had its own appeal: ice, river-smoothed rocks.
My son said, well, what do we like that is slimy?