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Collaborata Mollusca

A year's work on an artist's book, collaborating with the non-human.

A Collaboration with a Non-Human

We have all experienced snail-eaten junk mail or even envelopes, but have we looked closely at the results of snail dining?  They are quite beautiful; which is why Adele Outteridge and I have collected them over the years.

So one April, the day before we left for fibre Forum, it wasn’t unusual for us to experiment with different kinds of paper to see what the snails would eat. We put various samples out on my herb pots overnight and checked them the next morning to find to our surprise that all the expensive art papers had been ignored in favour of some tea-stained luggage labels. This is how I decided to spend a year working in the same way with the snails; to produce a book.

Collaborata MolluscaAccordingly, on my return from Forum I began, choosing manila folders as my book material – a compromise between the despised “good” paper and junk mail. And, after the success of the luggage labels I knew they would eat it.  Trouble was, Winter was near and our snails go into aestivation, and sleep through the colder months. So my first pages on the herb pots outside the back door, were totally ignored. One blew into a corner and stayed until I found it months later, mouldy, ragged and defiantly uneaten. [ It is there in the book].

Winter was very, very dry, and so was Spring when it came, with very few snails. At the very first I collected the snails and  put them in a bucket with a lid, but they just clustered on the inside of the lid and suffered. I felt like a slave owner, and let them go. I measured and cut my pages, dipped some in tea for variation, and put them out - to no avail. Quite reasonably the snails preferred the nice green shoots  of my parsley.

Some damp days saw a bit of action, but a couple of months went past without much luck. Then Kristen Dibbs suggested beer. After all you tempt them to death with it, so it must be attractive. So I dipped the pages in the beer and had some success. Snails eat by sort of rolling the surface of the paper, leaving beautiful shell or lichen-like patterns. Because they have an enzyme in their stomachs which allows them to digest cellulose, it doesn’t kill them. I’m not sure about the beer though. I still don’t know why they hate good quality paper – maybe it’s too tough?  In the course of eating the paper they also leave slime, other stains and excreta, not to mention bits of earth and leaves, all of which had to be brushed off the book pages.[ This makes the use of white gloves on the finished work  very amusing to me. ]

And so, a pattern began to emerge. Every evening about six, I would feed the cats, then dip the snails’ pages in beer and put them out on the herb pots. Sometimes they would eat; sometimes not. Rain helped, and there were some richly textured pages as a result. I felt I needed to know more about my workers, and looked for books .....snails are molluscs, but they weren’t in mollusc books, and neither were they in books about garden life – slugs were, but not snails. I Googled and found a gazillion hits, most of which were ways to kill them. Some concentrated on eating them. It took much work to find proper information  which I then I printed out and in turn gave it to my workers to eat.

Collaborata MolluscaI did find a wonderful Israeli blog where scientists were testing the speed of data transmission by using pigeons and also snails. There was a cute picture of two African Giant snails pulling a Ben Hur-like chariot with DVD’s for wheels. One of the scientists apparently lost the snails in her apartment and much later when she located them, found that they had eaten a whole encyclopedia of Animal Life.

It wasn’t only snails who ate the papers – there were slaters, leopard slugs, ordinary slugs and assorted like-minded creatures. I had two types of snail; the introduced Helix Aspersa, the common European, and now our brown snail, and another small reddish snail with a long thick body and a flattened shell. I discovered that snails behaved differently according to the weather. On mild days they spent time on the walls of the garage; hotter days they disappeared; wet days they were on the papers – and eating.  For many years I had worked to eradicate them from the garden, and I  now realise that I actually didn’t have many, particularly since I have now moved to a new house, the garden of which appears to be entirely constituted of snails.

I had a few industrial accidents. I accidently trod on a few, and once several fell into a beer container and drowned. I found this strangely upsetting, for by this time I valued my workers and didn’t want to restrict their already limited numbers.

The weather grew hotter and the snails disappeared. I changed my tactics to include take-away food. I would put the pages into clumps of agapanthus plants on mine and the neighbours’ nature strips. Snails adore agapanthus and I had some success.  I began to collect snails and bring them to the papers. It was then that I found that they are not as slow as people seem to think. I would collect a number of snails, place them on the beer-flavoured pages, and a ten minutes later – nothing – they would have all vanished! It was the same when I brought them inside to draw them – look away for a second and no snail!

Collaborata MolluscaThe weather got hotter and drier and everything green turned into Weetbix. I searched the garden; I stole them from other gardens; and finally discovered hiding places at the very base of plants, not quite buried. This is how I nearly put my hand into a huge tree funnelweb spider hole. Bookmaking was proving hazardous!

By the year’s end I finally had my book pages and all my eaten Google information. My grandson gave me a wonderfully eaten comic or brochure which I thought would make part of the cover, but eventually was set into the box lid. I made the book with a concertina spine and pages tipped in to each side. I decided to simply pencil in a commentary on the pages to complement the snails’ work, and not be intrusive. After all, many snails worked to enable me to make the book, and a few or more gave their lives for it – I needed to honour their contribution.

I stained the Google pages in tea and used them sparingly in the book but mostly to cover and line part of the box that held the book. I made an acrylic-covered recess in the base of the box to hold vacated snailshells, and a similar recess in the lid for the comic.

It was a fully rewarding year, and I have seriously learned a lot about snails. However, I find I can no longer kill them, which means that the garden in my new house will have to continue as it already is – the home of about 80 billion of them. A re-Google found not such an obsession with snail death, but a variety of subjects including Snail crafts, and Snail racing.....Maybe my frequent searches made a difference? I would like to think so. Snails have their place –  and after all they are now book artists, and that has to count in their favour.