Normally, I don’t lament the loss of snails. They collect underneath the edge of my terra
cotta pots, a perfect gathering area for their slimy soirees. Eating my kale is a must.
Moving in groups across the driveway is a nightly event. And snail poop caked on the
containers of my potted plants is an aesthetic blemish I am now getting used to.
Basically, they are the bane of a gardener’s existence.
But Mildred was a different kind of snail and very quickly she turned into a household
It was the Spring of 2011 and I was searching online for something called, Marimo
balls (Aegagropila linnaei). Marimo are Japanese filamentous green algae that live in
fresh water lakes in northern Japan. Their dark green foliage tumbles and bobs in the
current, eventually forming balls as they grow. It was a fluke that I came across an eBay
site toting them with, ” Free Shipping Maybe”. The “maybe” came if you lived in Japan
– or parts of Japan – everyone else had to pay shipping and order “soon while supplies
The Spring is a great time to fulfill your botanical urges, as they inevitably rise to the
surface this time of year. Bulbs, bare-root roses, fresh boxwood – a gardener feels like
they need to buy them all.
I had just finished a big design job and had barely cashed the final check when I
found myself quickly ordering the exotic moss balls. I bought the biggest ones I could,
to ensure optimum instant gratification. I waited 2 weeks before checking the site
regarding my order. All that was found was a error page and no contact info. I chalked
it up to taking the risk of buying “on the internet” and figured I had just been dicked.
Another 2 weeks went buy and to my surprise and excitement, my moss balls came.
I unwrapped the package, the newspaper, the waxed paper, ziplock bag and more
newspaper. The four balls sat there; two large – about the size of an orange and two the
size of a small lime. They were light and spongy, almost fake looking – and soaking wet
with smelly water. I hesitated to touch them with my bare hands, figuring I would
surely catch some sort of foreign disease that a few rounds of antibiotics would not
cure. As I was debating how to pick them up, where to put them and how to care for
the little green balls – I saw her.
Technically, Mildred was a snail. All I knew (or was able to identify) about her was that
she was a stow-away Japanese snail. Surely snatched from some lake in Japan, stored
in a random fish tank with a gang of Marimo balls, to be plucked, packaged and
shipped to Half Moon Bay, CA. But I liked to think of her as a renegade, a thrill seeker
and a bit of a loner, ready to get away from the norm and travel to a new land.
Once I saw her in the pile I quickly grabbed the balls, grabbed her and gently placed
them all in a giant cylindrical flower vase filled with fresh water. The ledge of my
kitchen window is where she remained for another 3 years.
As the Marimo balls grew, so did Mildred. She really seemed to thrive in that roomy
habitat all her own. Her shell doubled in size and turned a pretty, subtle brown color
and she spent her days eating the new algae that formed on the glass and outside of
the Marimo. During the 3 years she was my pet, Mildred was privy to everything going
on in the house. She saw the meals cooked in my busy little kitchen on weekends for
friends – cast iron clanging and onions being chopped. The smoke in the air never
bothered her when I burnt things like cookies or grilled cheese. She was brave when I
hurriedly flipped on the garbage disposal – the jolting would loosen her grip on the
tank, sending her soaring to the bottom. She saw every bottle of Champagne I ever
corked and saw each cheese plate ever assembled. Mildred stood witness to the
arguments and eye rolling, the afternoons spent reading newspapers at the kitchen
table, the activities of the dogs when we were away. Surely she saw the big dog
reaching up to the counter to grab that loaf of bread – the loot being dragged down
the hallway to be eaten in seclusion, bread crumb trails the only giveaway. To be
honest, I have no clue what she actually “saw”, but I’d like to think she was involved in
our family’s goings-on and maybe found it a little entertaining. Like everyone, we
spend a lot of time in the kitchen and I placed her there for that reason – she could
watch us and we could watch her.
Mildred’s life of solitude, truly wasn’t so alone.
Other than changing the water and pulling algae off her shell, Matt and I did nothing to sustain her. We felt scared to introduce a new food or plant, and frankly, she didn’t need it. She was growing like a weed, scouring the inner walls of the vase for algae and floating
around as she pleased. Since her main chore was to eat, you could always find her
soaring up and down – and with the vase against a window, she looked translucent and
ethereal. Her antennas made her look like a tiny flying angel.
The last week of her life, was that like any other. We were busy, working and she was
When we found her, we buried Mildred in the evening on a foggy Thursday in my
newly cultivated perennial bed. I burned a cedar incense stick around her burial site
and laid two viola flowers on her grave. I imagined her floating up to Heaven, but
instead of a giant ray of light coming down from the parting clouds – just a tiny one
peered through, since that was all she needed.
It’s rare that you get to befriend something that needs almost nothing from you. No
judgement or forward thinking, no constant attention or expense. She just was, and it
was enough for the both of us.
Farewell Mildred… Since we are all just speculating on what happens after we die, I’d
like to think I’ll see you again on the flip side. We’ll ditch the tank and Marimo balls
and finally have a chat, like old times.
In memory of Mildred the Snail.
Mildred was survived by Jenn and Matt and her other-species brothers and sisters; Sprout, Patootie, Lucky and the chickens she never saw.
(? – 7/24/2013)
(Pic by Icebox Images)
(Pics by Jenn)