Ann Wroe, author, on a snail shell
GB Why did you choose a snail-shell as an object of beauty?
AW I never feel I choose these things. They choose me. As I wander over the Sussex Downs I am partly lost in the view of sea, sky and cliffs; but I’m also looking closely at the turf and the chalk path, to see what small thing may be calling for my attention. It may be a flower, a pebble, a fragment of eggshell, a coin; but it is very often snailshells. I always remember where I find each one. This one captured me at the edge of a ploughed field on Cornish’s farm above Birling Gap, on a chilly day in March.
Snailshells make their beauty obvious, first, by contrast. They show up against the grass or the soil as gleams of white, catching the sun, and sometimes by their shifting too, as they take the wind. Then comes the beauty of their compactness and completeness, the satisfaction of that rounded spiral, and the perfection of the swirling motion up to the apex, that tiny perfect finial. Lastly comes the colouring, which for me is the greatest attraction: the reflection in this small vessel of calcium carbonate of all the hues of earth, sea and sky, so that it becomes a perfect evocation and mirror of the scene in which it lies. This one contains brown flecks that John Clare called “mozzl’d”—the colour of ploughed up earth and the feathers of skylarks, which make the music of the Downs. Perfect.
GB Is the Golden Ratio part of its beauty for you?
AW I hadn’t thought of that at all. The Golden Ratio for me summons up architecture and also, sadly, geometry, which was a source of many tears at school. I’m sure that beauty often conforms to mathematical principles, when it is orderly and symmetrical; and that when we see something that contains the Golden Ratio, whether a painting, a chair, a tree or a shell, we respond to it with a deep sense of satisfaction that we may not even understand.
But order and proportion are not prerequisites of beauty. I think of Robert Herrick’s “A sweet disorder in the dress…a lawn about the shoulders thrown.” My favourite flowers, too, are messy roses, prodigal cherry blossom, tumultuous sweet peas, violets too shy to reveal their shape; nothing ordered. A production that is too carefully configured, like a perfectly bred flower, may inspire admiration but fail to move us.
Having said that, the shape of a shell always matters to me; it must be “just so”, conformable to some inner sense of beauty that Plato may well have called geometrical (see my answer to the next question!). And it must never be chipped or damaged or stained, always perfect and entire.
GB Do you believe in universal beauty?
AW That is a difficult question. I do believe that beauty lies in all natural things: that, as Thomas Traherne said, the tiniest grain of sand or blade of grass becomes a thing of beauty—becomes a jewel—when it is truly understood. All creation is fundamentally beautiful, until man disfigures it; though men and women also create more beauty, of course.
My other answer to that question comes from Plato’s Phaedrus, in a passage I have always subscribed to: that our souls before incarnation exist in divine beauty, and that as long as they are in the world they are both consciously and unconsciously seeking for it, missing it. Plato describes the soul, which has lost its wings in the descent from heaven, growing feathers again whenever it is moved by beauty on earth. I feel that describes wonderfully well the thrill that beauty gives us, which seems as much remembrance and recognition as anything: remembrance of a state we have lost, but trust we shall recover.
GB Are you interested in the symbolism of the spiral in other ways?
AW Yes, I am. I might almost say I’m obsessed with the spirals in life: spirals in the pictograms, carvings and underground mazes of ancient inhabitants of the Downs; the spiral double-helix structure of the DNA of all living things; the spiralling movements of finger-whorls, and of iron filings round magnetic poles; the spiral dances made by gusts of wind blowing over grass; the spirals of water in a stream, of petal arrangements in flowers, and so on and so on. Skylarks as they rise and sing go up in spirals. And the neatest, most portable form of spiral is the shell of the snail.
To be involved in all that, the spiral must be holy; it must be the fundamental dance of creation and life. It is both rise and fall, and circle; both inward and outward, and circle. And that movement is summed up in the static shell: its spiral flows both inward, to the deep self, and outward to infinite space, passing as it flows through the colours of the earth.
GB Is it also a symbol of protection, an exoskeleton?
AW I hadn’t thought of that. The shell seems less like protective armour than a tiny home, less part of a body than a retreat into which the body slides and sleeps. I think of it as a little vessel into which something is put; prodigally, unnecessarily lovely for such a utilitarian task.
The shells themselves are strikingly exposed. They lie on the top of the turf or the soil, vulnerable to any bird or breeze, or to the walker’s boot. (How dreadful to crunch on one! How mortified I feel, and full of useless apologies!). I am struck, though, by how tough they seem in my hand or my pocket, secure in their roundness and smoothness, not easily breakable. They become a sort of talisman then, a protection for myself: one I can reach in and touch, like the polished oak apple I used to keep in my blazer pocket at school.
GB Are you more drawn to the empty shell than to one with a living snail inside? Why?
AW Definitely. I never take an occupied shell. It isn’t mine. It belongs to the creature who, I imagine, sleeps in it, usually impassive but sometimes drawing in its moist, bubbly muscle with a little shiver of irritation. I put it down very quickly then, in choice grass, feeling sorry to have disturbed it.
Even the dried vestige of a snail inside deters me; if I extracted it, I would be rifling a tomb and declaring that its contents had no value. But the first possessor’s claim still holds while any presence is there.
Oddly enough, though, I am much less drawn to occupied shells. They seem darker and heavier even at first sight. By contrast, the empty shell has acquired, with emptying out, the pale colours I most love. And that shell belongs to all the world. If I want it, it is mine, free, weightless and unspoken for. And with every day that the wind and salt enter into it, as well as polish its exterior, it only increases in weightlessness and beauty.
GB Does this choice of object say anything about you personally?
AW I suppose it must do. It’s small, and I have always loved miniature things, from dolls’ houses to tiny books to the minute flowers of the chalk: milkwort, scabious, daisies, thyme. It is smooth and compact and entire in itself, which perhaps reflects my instinct for tidiness and my happiness in a thing well crafted and a job well done. But all that sounds rather sensible. It’s by colour that I choose my shells, and my favourites will be those that most faintly and beautifully leap off from earth towards the farthest horizons of the sea; From the safe, wind-proof place, voyaging outwards.
GB Does visual beauty play a large part in your life? Can you tell us about its role in your book?
AW Visual beauty IS my life. It’s where all my thinking starts. I roam out onto the Downs, and the words and reflections simply pour in. My new book, “Six Facets of Light”, is really a love-song to visual beauty, encapsulated in light in all its moods. We live by light; we long for it; but we also contribute our own light, our own imagination, to every scene. The creation of beauty is a joint effort between this extraordinary entity, light, and our own eyes. The surpassing beauty of this little shell is a wonderful collaboration. And every day that the wind and salt enter into it, polishing it within as well as without, it only increases in weightlessness and beauty.