Unfolding the Map
This post is a fun one, mostly about banana slugs! Slimy, ugly and utterly fascinating, these creatures are. I grew up with them. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) comes face to face with one, and then lets it get away from him. Somewhere in his van crawls a banana slug, making sleep difficult. Who wants to wake up with a slug on their face? I don't!
I made some guesses for this post, picking spots on Muir Creek and on Salt Creek to represent where LHM might have stopped. To see these two places, navigate to the map!
"Oregon 230 followed a broad mountain stream called Muir Creek. When the morning warmed, I stopped along the banks to fill a basin and wash....
"Big yellow-hooded blossoms of the Western skunk cabbage spread over the margins....Looking nothing like cabbage, the leaves were used by Indians to wrap food for cooking; they pulverized the hot peppery roots into a flour that helped save them (and the Lewis and Clark expedition) from starvation in the early spring before other edible plants sprouted."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 2
"I crossed the Cascades on Oregon 58....
"At noon, the journey began a kind of sea change that started when I drove up an old logging road into the recesses of Salt Creek....
"After a sandwich, I poked about the woods and turned up a piece of crawling yellow jelly nearly the length of my hand. It was a banana slug, so named because the mollusk looks like a wet, squirming banana. I wanted to photograph it, but a drizzle came on, so I bedded it down in damp leaf litter in a pail. I could drive out of the rain to take its picture."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 2
Somewhere on Muir and Salt Creeks, Oregon
Why so many quotes today? These passages of LHM's make me a little homesick. I've written in many posts that I am from the north coast of California, and the climate, animal and plant life of that area is very similar to what you find in Oregon. The forests are made up of tall trees - in my home area the trees are predominantly redwood and fir, and in this part of Oregon you have pretty much the same type of coniferous forest, minus the redwoods. At all times of year, especially in valley's and gulches near streams, the land is wet and lush. Coniferous forests often create their own weather by holding and trapping the moisture that they need to survive underneath the forest canopy. In winter, regardless of whether it is raining or not, one can often walk beneath the boughs of the trees and get bombarded by water condensing and rolling off the needly leaves in heavy drops.
I love those types of forests. In the winter, the lushness and dampness brings to one's nose a heavy smell of vegetation. The forest loam, made up of fallen needles that have accumulated over years, provides a soft, spongy ground to walk upon. Rivers, swollen by the rains, run high and rapid, looking very different than the dark green, brownish streams that are their summer guises. Sometimes, large fish negotiate the rapids, occasionally leaping out of the water - these are salmon returning to their birthplaces to spawn at the end of one of the most fascinating circular journeys of our world. Born upstream, if they survive various dangers after they hatch they swim downriver to the ocean. There they become saltwater fish for the majority of their lives, anywhere from one to five years. At some point, they heed the call to reproduce and find their way back to the stream that they left so long before. They swim against the stream, negotiating all kinds of obstacles and dangers both natural and man-made. If they make it to their spawning ground, then depending on their gender they lay eggs or release sperm to fertilize the eggs. And then, after a glorious moment of reproduction, they die.
This type of environment is like where I grew up, and I still get a thrill walking through the chill of a dripping coniferous forest, the smell of the rotting vegetation, the smell of newly fallen or cut wood from these areas, and the smell of the clean, and I mean really clean, air. My pants might get wet from walking through living and large vegetation such as the skunk cabbage LHM mentions. A walk in such areas is usually followed by warming my backside against the heat of a warm indoor fire. There's nothing like it.
In this world lives one of the most fascinating creatures. I used to run across them as a boy. LHM is entranced enough by one to revert to a boy himself and put it in a pail to take with him. I'm writing about the banana slug. On wet days, it was not uncommon to find one, slowly sliming its way across the leaves, leaving a trail of sticky goo behind it. These creatures are related to snails, and have the same type of movements, sans shell. Their antennae slowly move back and forth, with what appear to be little eyes on them. They look like a banana. If I touched one or picked it up, it was always slimy.
If a banana slug fears, it should fear little boys. Little boys are the bane of pretty much every slow-moving and slow-witted creature. For banana slugs in particular, every type of torture could be devised. Slice them, dice them. Put firecrackers under them or around them. Throw them at other kids. Put salt on them and watch them horribly shrivel up and die. I partook in some of these activities, usually because of peer pressure. Secretly, I was delighted by banana slugs. They were just so, harmless. They seemed like manatees or cows of the mollusk world. They did their own thing, not really caring about anything else, paying attention only to their own world.
I was very happy when I learned some years ago that the University of California at Santa Cruz had taken the banana slug as its unofficial mascot. The students chose the name as a statement against the hyper-competitiveness of college athletics, since UC-Santa Cruz didn't have organized athletics at the time, but when the university decided to join the NCAA Division III in five sports, the chancellor wanted to give the teams a more dignified name. However, the Sea Lions didn't catch on, and in 1986 the university bowed to student pressure and officially changed its name to the banana slugs. The lowly banana slug went from a regional nobody that little boys tortured to the rarified heights of university mascot, symbolized by Sammy the Slug!
Back to LHM, who put the slug in a pail and put it in Ghost Dancing in order to drive out the rain and photograph it. What happened? He forgot about it, then later found the pail empty. Somewhere in his truck, a banana slug was marauding around and haunting his dreams that night. Maybe he was right to fear...after all, a banana slug has no known predators (except little boys)!
You don't know how hard it is, sometimes, to come up with a decent tune for the musical interlude, especially when you are writing about banana slugs or skunk cabbage. However, I found a band from Northern California called the Banana Slug String Band, whose musicians write and play educational songs for kids about the environment. A few that were really cool weren't available, but here's one about redwood trees called Big Red. Since I came from the redwood region, I enjoy looking at the trees.
If you want to know more about Muir and Salt Creeks
Next up: Corvallis, Oregon