A snail by any other name is a slug: Culture, nature and classification
September 19, 2018
Since moving to the UK nine months ago, I have finally acquired a small garden – something I have lived without for most of my adult life. Having grown up in the tropics, I was therefore relatively unfamiliar with the scourge of gardeners everywhere: slugs and snails. However, this lack of exposure has been speedily rectified, because it soon became apparent that our tiny backyard was subject to a snail and slug plague of biblical proportions. Each day we were greeted by the sight of glistening trails of criss-crossing slime and the carcasses of overpriced plants from Homebase.
Two weeks ago, The Guardian featured an article about Tom Fraine, the British man who inadvertently ended up as the ‘dead’ body on the ‘smoking causes heart attacks’ label. In describing his experience of how he came to be a cigarette packaging model, Fraine recounts: ‘I was offered €200 and asked to come to a disused hospital on the outskirts of Berlin. They painted my face grey, put me in a body bag and took me to the morgue. Being in a body bag really freaked me out, especially when the photographer zipped the bag up fully and whispered: “This is for Dresden”, before unzipping me. He had a dark sense of humour.’
A few months ago I had one of those moments of crisis I periodically experience as an Australian living in Canada. The specific occasion was the steam cleaning of my carpet (er, that's not a euphemism for anything; I was literally having my carpets cleaned). The cleaners had been hard at work for almost an hour and were starting to wrap things up when suddenly I was struck by a disturbing thought: was I supposed to give them a tip?
As an Australian, the rules of tipping remain somewhat opaque to me, even after a three-year stint in Colorado and a decade in Canada. The thing is that I'm a social anthropologist—studying this kind of thing is supposed to be my bread and butter. Yet, despite a good deal of thought I have not been able to intuit when I'm supposed to tip.
Some time ago, I read an issue of the local Vancouver rag devoted, in large part, to dogs. There were articles on dog naming trends in the province (Fido is out and Max is in!), the best designer crossbreeds (labradoodles rock!) and images of adorable dogs frolicking in a dog park.
As someone reasonably new to the city at the time (and, quite frankly, a cat person), it seemed a little odd that a newspaper would chronicle so extensively the lives of the local canine population. But I have come to realize that this newspaper issue illustrates perfectly the unique relationship Vancouverites hold with their dogs, the likes of which I have not seen elsewhere – either my native Australia, or notoriously dog-friendly Paris.
While I was lecturing at a regional university in the USA, a colleague told me about a student (let's call him Steve), who had asked for her anthropological opinion on a recent incident. While waiting for class to start, Steve yawned and stretched in his chair, and he accidentally let out a "loud and proud" fart – the brunt of which was borne by a classmate sitting directly behind him.
The classmate was most offended by this errant fart and insisted that Steve apologise. Faced with Steve's unwillingness to repent the fart, his irate classmate responded with threats to beat him up. Bewildered at the response his fart engendered, Steve asked my colleague: why is this natural occurrence treated with such hostility?
As an Australian and a cultural anthropologist, I find the teeth of most North Americans I have encountered a source of considerable fascination. These are teeth as nature never intended them: dazzlingly white and straight.
Although Australians now seem almost as obsessed with teeth whitening and straightening as their North American counterparts, this has been a recent change, one that largely bypassed children of my generation (the mid-1970s and early 1980s).