I had been in Sitka, Alaska, for a week, participating in a symposium on a weighty theme, As engaging as it was, the mix of presentations, discussions, and readings involved long sessions of sitting, talking, and thinking. I had already escaped to these woods three times, trying to clear my head.
They're beautiful woods, made more beautiful by the tall, powerfully carved totem poles that line their paths. Totem Park, it's called locally, this small peninsula of forest. Wide trails wend among huge temperate rainforest trees: Sitka spruce, western hemlock, Alaska yellow cedar.
Many trees have giant sculpted bases with the kinds of curves, caves, and arches that, as a child, I labeled the homes of wood elves. In the tradition of the Tlingits, the region's native American culture, such magical beings are called kushtakas.
On my solitary walks, I had looked at the totems and trees, read the interpretive signs, and walked the trails. Now I was here once more with my 9-year-old son, who had joined me in Sitka the day before. Despite his piteous protests, I dragged James out of our hotel room, where he had become transfixed by cable, stunned into watching a myriad of programs he doesn't get at home. As always, once he was away from the TV and into the woods, he forgot all about cable.
We came upon the gnarled bases of the great trees, and while I told him about kushtakas, he climbed through the arches, into the caves, and onto the horizontal limbs. As we walked on, he pointed out every possible home of a kushtaka. At the first totem, though, he was less than impressed and began complaining about being tired. So I made a game of it: Whoever spotted the next totem first got a point. The race was on, and we found a string of them quickly.
Then he found his first slug.
"Oh, yes, they're called banana slugs, and they're everywhere," I said. "Be careful not to step on them; they're slimy."
"Well, I don't want anyone else to step on it, Mom. Let's move it off the trail," he said.
"Oh, OK, but don't touch it. It's really slimy."
He found a couple of sticks, picked it up, and put it in the woods.
And so began the Banana Slug Rescue Project. James had to move every slug we found off the trail, so many slugs that he quickly abandoned the sticks for fingers. I participated in locating them, but not in handling them, and so another game ensued: Wipe slug slime on Mom.
Now, I'm not the kind of person who is usually squeamish about wild things. I like spiders. If I find one in the house, I'll let it be or move it to a better location. I've tried to teach my son to treat every living thing with respect. He doesn't step on ants, pull the wings off flies, or mistreat anything.
Which is why we were now saving slugs.
However, there are a few creatures four, actually that I've never liked and will squash if they're bothering me: mosquitoes, ticks, cockroaches, and slugs. On a trip to Hawaii, I spent a sleepless night because roaches had been found in the kitchen.
What bothers me about slugs is their slime, their affinity for garden plants, and their slime, which can get on your bare foot or between your toes and simply won't be washed off. It's like stepping on bubble gum, only the consistency is more that of mucous.
But as I watched my son's valiant attempts, I became more than a locator. I picked one up, first with sticks and then with my fingers. I began to see the slug in a new light. These banana slugs had a certain beauty to them, with their olive-green backs decorated with black spots. They're bigger than the garden variety I grew up around. Banana slugs are so large that you can see their antennae and mouths. James watched and wondered about them with unflagging enthusiasm. We found ourselves exclaiming over the smaller ones: "Oh! A baby!"
His affinity for banana slugs was so infectious that, near the end of our walk, after rescuing dozens of them, it was I who cried excitedly, "Look! An albino slug!"
A pure white slug glided across the moss. We crouched around it while I explained albinism to James. Nearby, a forest ranger answered a couple's questions about salmon. We asked him, "Have you seen this albino slug?"
"Where?" he said quickly. "I've heard of them, but I've yet to see one."
We showed it to him, and he was more excited than either of us.
"I've been wanting to see one for a while. They're rare. Can't believe I missed this guy when I just walked by here a few minutes ago," the ranger said.
Then he turned to James. "I've got a special interest in slugs. Want to know some things about them?"
"Sure," said James, and the forest ranger launched into a lecture on the natural history of the banana slug.
"They know where they're going," he said, "See that log? Maybe that's where this one is heading. Maybe it's been there before and knows that's a good wet spot to stay in. They have a small brain, nine neurons...."
Slug brains. I was crouched in the forest learning about a slug's intelligence, and loving it.
As we dragged ourselves away from the albino slug and the quiet forest, back into the bright light of the town's sidewalk, I felt as if I'd really been in the deep woods of Totem Park. I felt relaxed, rejuvenated, full of curiosity and wonder. I felt like a child.
And I knew, looking down at James, that I had him to thank for it. Each time I'd walked the trails by myself, I'd never entered the forest because I had never escaped the talking in my head. This time I was in the forest, my mind totally occupied with the place itself. And I came away from it with surprise! an affinity for slugs.