Let’s talk about the romance of living in Britain, starting with slugs. Because nothing says romance like a creature that travels on a trail of its own slime, has no skeleton, and eats everything in your garden except the weeds and the lawnmower you left out.
I’m not much of a romantic myself, and that may be why British slugs shocked me when I moved here. Minnesota slugs are (in hindsight) shy little creatures that nibble but don’t gulp. They have no taste for garden furniture. Give them a saucer of beer and they’ll drown themselves, leaving your tomatoes in peace.
And if you don’t put out beer, they only eat the smallest bit. I could knock them off a tomato, cut around the hole they left, and tell myself that sharing is good and all nature’s creatures can live in harmony.
Unless of course I ignored the garden for a few days, in which case they’d eat half the tomato and the other half would rot, but whose fault was that? I should’ve taken my tomatoes in earlier.
British slugs, though? They don’t actually eat garden furniture. That was—by way of complete transparency—an exaggeration. But I’ve seen them eyeing it. They have plans. I know this.
That’s not what shocked me, though, because I didn’t know it when I was at that early, shockable stage. It was their size that threw me. They’re as big as buses. Or at least as my longest and rudest finger.
Even in that early stage, I got a sense of what we were dealing with: Wild Thing set out a tray of seedlings one night and by morning they’d mowed down the entire thing. All they left was the plastic, the soil, and a roughly crafted sign saying, “More.” If you set out beer for these beasts, when you come out in the morning you’ll find them sitting around the edge of the saucer, thumping their mugs on the bar, yelling for refills, and singing.
There’s something about the intersection of Britain and booze that makes drunks sing, even when the drunks in question are slugs, which (in case it’s not entirely clear, and again in the interest of complete transparency) can’t actually speak.
Singers, do not try to learn your lyrics from slugs. It doesn’t work.
Why am I writing about this now? Because I was reminded recently that starting in 2012 the country was invaded by Spanish slugs. Yes, my friends, foreign slugs have made their way into this green and pleasant land, and they threaten to outcompete our good native slugs. They’re bigger. (Good god. How big can a slug get?) They reproduce faster. They eat more. According to the website Slugwatch (no I didn’t make that up; yes, you can spend your life watching slugs if you really, really want to; and yes, I’m sure there are far worse things to do with a life although none come to mind just now), they tolerate hotter, dryer environments (neither of which they’ve found here lately, but never mind; I’m sure it’ll be an advantage eventually), and they have an “extensive omnivorous diet.”
I have to interrupt myself here to talk about that diet being both extensive and omnivorous, because if omnivorous means that they eat everything (and it does; I’ve stacked the garden furniture inside to protect it, along with my supply of parentheses, which is why I can use them so freely in this post), then how much more extensive can an appetite get? They eat more than everything? And if our native slugs’ diet is less extensively omnivorous, wouldn’t that make them not omnivorous?
Former editors are terrible nitpickers, although if it makes you feel any better, I was worse before I retired. And I got paid for it.
But let’s get down to the specifics of that extensively omnivorous eating. Spanish slugs eat excrement and dead animals, Slugwatch says. In contrast, my own small and unscientific survey suggests that our good British slugs do exactly the same thing. (I told you this was going to be romantic, didn’t I?) From the time I moved here—and it was before 2012—if I wanted to slaughter some slugs, all I had to do was locate the cat shit. Or the last batch of slugs and snails I’d killed. There they’d be, chowing down happily.
And that’s not just my experience. When M. cleaned up her yard after the dog, if she found any slugs she’d just pick them up and toss them all in the trash together. She liked to think of it as sending them off with a packed lunch.
But change makes good headlines. So do threat and horror. Cannibalistic slugs attack Great Britain! Keep the children indoors!
In fairness, Slugwatch didn’t say that, but one or another of tomorrow’s papers may.
To continue with our romantic theme, though, let’s talk cold, hard politics. Because romanticizing a culture is lovely until, without much warning, it turns toxic, contrasting My Romantic and Wonderful Culture with your (note that we’ve shifted to lower case letters here, since your culture’s less important) lousy one which threatens to dilute Mine in one way or another.
So when some papers and people talk about immigration, whether the incomers are human or nonhuman, something that scares the hell out of me happens. If they see the immigrants as smarter and stronger and more omnivorous than either ourselves or our annoying native species, they complain about the incomers because they’ll outcompete us or ours. And if they see them as dumber, weaker, and less omnivorous? Well hell, that means they’re not as good as us or ours, so they deserve to be swamped. Unlike us and ours, who deserve to be protected.
I admit, I don’t favor the random transplantation of all species. I draw the line at Japanese knotweed, which can come up (or so they say) through the floor of a house and can only be destroyed by eradicating the entire planet, which would have serious consequences for our species—and problematic as we are, I kind of like our species. I’m not in favor of moving plants and beasts from one ecosystem to another, because the target ecosystem may not be able to cope with it.
But you can’t carry an extreme example over and apply it to everything. If Japanese knotweed’s a problem, that doesn’t mean humans should be locked into their native soil.
Hysteria, however, sells papers. And selling paper (did I mention that I used to be an editor?) is good.
Consider the Asian hornet. I heard a mention of it on the radio recently, so I went to my old and odd friend Google and found an article in Metro, which is accompanied by a picture of someone holding a hornet roughly the size of a small lobster. Or at least of a monstrously large hornet. The headline says, “Run for cover because these terrifying Asian hornets are heading to the UK.”
From under my bed, where I cowered with my laptop, I read the slogan beside Metro’s masthead: “News…but not as you know it.” I figured that meant, “We’re having way more fun than any reputable newspaper should.”
It was a rough translation, but it helped me put things in perspective and I went on to read the small type, where I learned that the hornets aren’t in Britain yet. I almost crawled out from under the bed. Then I read that deaths have been attributed to them in France.
Should I stay? Should I wiggle out?
I read that the deaths came from allergic reactions and looked for a comparison figure that would tell me how many people died of bee stings. I didn’t find it, but I figured this might be business as usual, so I crawled back to my desktop, where I read that up to 6,000 Asian hornets can live in a single hive.
By then, I was suspicious. I googled number of bees in a hive and learned that it’s 20,000 to 60,000. So I went to the Independent and learned that Asian hornets could come over from France, and it wouldn’t be good news since they can destroy honeybee colonies, but that they’re not the same as giant Asian hornets—they’re less dangerous, and fairly harmless to humans. Unless, of course, you’re allergic.
But hey, they’re foreign. So it seems only fair that Metro would assume that they’re up to no good. And I say that as a foreigner myself. I’m up to no good. Just look at what I’ve done with the idea of romance. And there may well be 6,000 of me living in my house. Who’d know? I’m not letting Pest Control past the front door.
What I will not be doing here in the secrecy of my hive is joining a society to defend the British slug from foreign incursions. Even if the foreign slug is more extensively omnivorous.
And so to all of you who dream of visiting Romantic Britain, and to you Brits who want foreigners like me to respect the romance of your lovely (and it really is lovely) native land, I say that I am. The romance is as great as ever, and this morning it left slime tracks on my driveway.