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Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Snail's Approach (Apr. 26, 2012)

Snails were on my mind this morning as I walked. I saw nearly a hundred of them before I stopped counting. It had rained last night and they were out to explore. So was I.

Snails do not get the same attention other animals do. Their nickname isn’t “Man’s best friend,” or even “Woman’s garden companion.” In fact, it’s easy to forget about them entirely. This is especially true in Southern California where rain is scarce and snail sightings are few. I’ve blogged about them before. Many people see them purely as pests, but I find them intriguing. Their mobile homes make them different from so many creatures. They leave a twisty trail of slime as they go, a meandering series of loops and squiggles. I’ve often noticed how indirect their paths are. Today, the morning of the snails, I found myself walking down dead ends and back, wandering in circles, squares and lasso-shapes, creating a route as circuitous as the snails’ path. It was great.

This morning’s walk was in a neighborhood I’m intrigued by, but don’t know very well (this is an excellent combination—it guarantees discovery and delight). This is the same area I wrote about five months ago, a maze of a neighborhood, where I first saw a Buddha’s Hand tree. Nothing about this neighborhood is uniform, which I like. It’s a mix of older homes from the 1920s, newer condos, stately mansions and funky, modest one-bedroom cottages. The streets stop at canyons, they continue up steep hills, they twist, turn and confound. I like the sections with smaller houses the best. People have been inventive with their smaller lots, tucking gardens into irregularly-shaped margins. Unlike preplanned communities, there are a lot of plant varieties in this neighborhood. People have created their own gardens, mixing succulents with lilies, bamboo with hibiscus. Individuality comes out here. It’s more playful than other neighborhoods. At one house three pink plastic flamingoes peek through a wrought-iron gate. I wasn’t surprised to see a ‘60s Volkswagen bus. On a front porch someone has turned an old-fashioned porcelain bathtub into a veggie garden.

I walked up one canyon, thinking it led to a street I liked. It turned out not to be the street I expected, but I loved the surprise. Houses are tucked into the cliffs. It’s like a hideout, with the steep canyon walls keeping its secret. Firey orange Nasturtium tumble across the ground. Eucalyptus leaves whisper overhead. The houses are spaced irregularly, and the land wasn’t leveled to one flat plain. The canyon’s contours remain, and the inhabitants seem happy to submit to nature’s bumps rather than eliminate them. Fuchsia Bougainvillea arcs over purple Mexican sage bobbing in the breeze. It’s not ultra-manicured and the wildness of it makes you feel like you’re in the country, not a quarter-mile from the freeway.

Some of the streets have a little of the flavor of LA’s Topanga Canyon, which still has its 60s hippie vibe. In Topanga, every building seems to be a tree house, set on a hill amongst Oaks. It feels remote, with houses half-hidden. Every street is curvy, with surprises around each bend. Wind chimes sway, nature prevails, and you’ll see more birds than people. There are streams, boulders, horses, and trees, trees, trees.

Toward the end of today’s walk I found my favorite street. It really is a funky mix, which I dig. It’s a serpentine road with houses seemingly built into the hillsides. One house is wedge-shaped. Some are 1920s wooden cottages. There are triplexes, small Spanish revivals, and a few apartment buildings. Potted plants march up the edge of narrow staircases disappearing under a canopy of vines. You round a hairpin bend and a cascade of red geraniums surprises you. There aren’t sidewalks on my favorite street but that doesn’t dissuade someone like me. At one corner I saw two slightly broken pieces of furniture left outside the front fence. Immediately I knew I could make a plant holder out of what I saw, and I hoped it would still be there when I returned with the truck. (It was! I grabbed it and I will blog about its makeover in a week or two. But there are a million things to do before then so it will have to wait.)

Do canyons attract people like me, who don’t want square corners? Are canyons intriguing to those of us who are open to odd-shaped lots and houses with creative dimensions and solutions? Canyons are not conducive to a planned-out format on level ground, with rectangular lots. I like that canyons have older trees, and that their edges are softened by groundcover or plants that have been there a while. Canyons have more shadows. More surprises.

I explored, happy not to know exactly what was around each bend. Honestly, I don’t think my wander was inspired by the snails’ winding journeys, but I like the coincidental timing. Maybe snails have it right: you see things you wouldn’t have if you’d kept on a straight course. The world is more interesting when you take a less direct path.

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