I have become obsessed with snails.

As obsessions go, that one’s fairly harmless, but still a bit on the odd side. I added two Golden Mystery Snails (also known as Apple Snails, and in any case the most common petstore snails available in the US) to the small aquarium I’d set up in my kitchen. It currently contains the aforementioned snails, along with three goldfish who were transplanted from an outdoor water feature on my balcony due to some upcoming construction. There are also a number of small brown pest snails that came along for the ride with the plants.

Anyway, so I added the snails, which are between about an inch and an inch and a half long (the female is larger). We selected the two we did because they seemed most active in the pet shop–to the extent that snails can be called “active,” I suppose. As it turns out, their activity was mostly related to pretty incessant mating behavior. And it’s not just recreational: the female deposited two egg clusters on the side of the aquarium just above the water line, each about an inch and a half long. Typical Apple Snail clusters contain between 70 and 200 eggs; but I suspect the goldfish who share the aquarium will assist in preventing a population explosion in the snail community, the circle of life being what it is.

All of this does, in fact, have to do with photography. I’m experiencing a lull in human models, and the demands of my day job are preventing a lot of excursions into the photogenic desert, but the photographic void in my life has been utterly filled with watching the snails, and photographing their goings-on.

To photograph events in the relatively small world of a ten-gallon aquarium, involving even smaller critters, I’ve been playing around with a 105mm 1:2.8 Sigma DG Macro lens, and various manual and pre-set settings on the Nikon D90 (auto and close-up presets, for instance, as well as manual and auto-focus on the lens). I’ve been using and not using a tripod, and using the camera flash, a Nikon Speedlight SB-700 flash attachment, and ambient fluorescent light in the kitchen where the aquarium lives. The some of the results, seen here, are pretty successful, particularly considering that the two of snails were taken through glass and water:

close-up of Apple SnailApple Snails mating

Snail egg cluster

What’s been most interesting about this foray into macro photography is how phenomenally interesting the little world is. The geometry of the egg cluster, for instance, was unexpected and surprisingly (at least in my view) beautiful. All the intricate flowing parts of the snails, the gracefulness of their movements and, well let’s be honest, their voracious sexual appetite, was not really aligned with what I thought of as snail-ness.

It’s been good to pause and look closely at a world that has no idea that I’m here.  That thought gets me all philosophical about the nature of being, and the limits of human understanding even as we sit around thinking we pretty much know it all. There’s a quote attributed to the Buddha, which I love: “Our theories of the eternal are as valuable as are those which a chick which has not broken its way through its shell might form of the outside world.” We think we know everything there is to know at any particular point in time, but subsequent centuries generally demonstrate that we were foolish in our presumptuousness, woefully ignorant in our misunderstandings of science and the world. In the past, the most shining, brilliant minds knew the inarguable truth that the world was flat, that the sun, planets, and fixed stars revolved around in in a series of nested crystaline spheres, or that the world was spontaneously created in six days.

In my aquarium, the snails go about their (photogenic) interests blissfully unaware that they’re in my kitchen, that I’m taking pictures of them, that those pictures are being posted on a website and viewed by (one or two) people all over the world. As history has demonstrated, as the Buddha has said in other ways, as we somehow know, we’re living in our own little aquarium (albeit one whose limits are defined by the Hubble on one end and CERN on the other). We may be equally unclear about what’s going on right around us, and will no doubt be utterly shocked and amazed at the silliness of what we “knew” as we slowly peel away layers of misconception and ignorance, working toward an ultimate understanding that always lies a little beyond our glassy wall. 

Well that was a digression, and I apologize. But one thing’s utterly clear: Snails are cool.