Saturday, September 25, 2010



This was published by, and copyrighted to, W.H. Freeman and Co., New York, in 1997. The author is Geerat Vermeij, a doctor of SNAILS teaching at the University of California at Davis. I MEANT TO READ THIS RIGHT AFTER IT FIRST CAME OUT, when I spotted it in a catalogue. I misplaced the dang thing and NEVER HEARD ANOTHER WORD ABOUT THIS BOOK from then until now. I just couldn't remember the title. Nothing about the phrase "privileged hands" reminds me of SNAILS.

So, OK, this is the autobiography of Dr. Vermeij, who was in elementary school one day in the Fifties -- not yet a doctor of anything -- when his teacher brought in some SEASHELLS she'd picked up on vacation in Florida. He investigated them in an unguarded moment, and FROM THAT MOMENT ON, knew exactly what he wanted to be: a conchologist. He went right out and did it, too; it only took ABOUT TWENTY MORE YEARS of study, shell collecting, world travel and other minor hassles, like the day he was debriefed bitten by a Moray.

What is supposed to make this story so remarkable is that before he ever entered that kiddie classroom with the seashells sitting on the counter, he was blinded by German measles. Even now, people might assume that any sort of challenging career would be out of the question for him. Vermeij didn't think that way, so he went right ahead. He has been a bit of an advocate for the blind in his own way, without making a big deal out of it. He says in here that he doesn't want to be seen primarily as a blind person. And he isn't. He's primarily a guy who's way, way too focused on Snails.

What HE TOTALLY LEAVES OUT is the REAL MESSAGE of his life: WHEN DAGON CALLS, YOU GOTTA GO. No matter how you slice it apart or wrap it up, this story could only have ended one way. You know I hate to say this, but even a blind man could see it coming. Vermeij didn't choose the shellfish; the shellfish chose him. He describes himself in that classroom, finishing his work before all the other kids and being drawn helplessly towards the shell display. He puts his hands on them...and something happens. His fate is sealed. HOW COOL IS THAT?

One thing I really liked about this story was the way he and his recruiters WORKED TOGETHER on bringing Snail consciousness to the forefront of his life and the lives of others. The (chuckle) scientific community has slowly started to understand -- largely because of this team effort -- the importance of Molluscs in natural selection, and the brutal competition between those ladies and their fellow recruiters, the Crabs. Don't think it was an easy sell. The author himself tells you, again and again, "I should have figured out this point years before, but until that day when I had the Clam in my hands, it just never occuured to me." He wasn't the only one working hard, either. If you think being plucked out of the sea and sizzled out of your shell with a hot needle is easy, TRY IT sometime. One recruiter after another submitted to this treatment in order to GET THE JOB DONE. It's a remarkable effort you rarely get to see from the point of view of the Naked Ape recruit.

Oh, if only he had written this a few years later! He could have called his book The Snail Whisperer.

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