Story and image by Don McGowan
They are easily overlooked and often quite readily ignored. They often leave a slimy trail wherever they go, which doesn’t necessarily endear them to a lot of people. Yet they are an important part of the web of life in these old mountains, and if you are willing to be completely honest with yourself, they are downright cute, bordering on beautiful.
There are more than 140 species of land snail that call the Smokies “home,” and they live most of their lives devouring the new detritus of the park—plant parts including leaves and stems, bark, and even fruit. To some, mushrooms and fungi are at the top of the menu. In short, they are nature’s tiny vacuum cleaners; but of equal significance, they are on the menu of a number of other Smokies citizens: birds (especially ground foragers like wild turkeys and thrushes) and small mammals such as shrews, mice, and squirrels. Even some toads and salamanders enjoy dining at the land snail deli. The calcium carbonate houses of land snails offer a useful calcium supplement to the diets of these creatures. How’s that for a combination of beauty and function in a small container?
This, however, is not so much a story about a land snail as it is a story about photographing a land snail. Some years ago, while looking for wildflowers in Greenbrier, I came upon this beautiful specimen hard at work eating up the forest. Rather than choosing to create with my macro lens and produce a life-size animal in a very narrow field of view, I decided to use my wide-angle lens (Nikon 12-24mm), which would not be life-size but would provide an excellent field of the snail’s forest habitat. Then I chose to add a close-up lens (Canon 500D) to the wide-angle, allowing me to focus very close to the snail—and thus to achieve “almost life-size”—but to retain quite a lot of the wide-angle field of view. I had to relinquish some depth of field in the bargain, but the outcome seemed worth the trade.
“The beauty of the imagination is that it can discover such magnificent vastness inside a tiny space. Our culture is dominated by quantity. Even those who have plenty hunger for more and more. Everywhere around us the reign of quantity extends and multiplies. Sadly the voyage of greed has all the urgency but no sense of destination. Desire becomes inflated and loses all sense of vision and proportion. When beauty becomes an acquisition it brings no delight. When time seemed longer and slower, the eye of the beholder had more space and distance to glimpse the beautiful. There was respect for the worlds that could be suggested by a glimpse.”
~John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.