Going snake hunting in Philly—and finding snails

This week in North Philly Notes, urban herper Billy Brown, author of Exploring Philadelphia Nature, recounts his adventures in the concrete jungle and how enjoying the beauty of the natural world can be full of delights and surprises.

I couldn’t find a brown snake (Storeria dekayi) right away, and it was starting to stress me out. The railroad embankment by the Northeast Water Pollution Control Plant looked perfect: waist-high mugwort and other weeds with the usual assortment of trash that gets dumped in out-of-mind corners of the city. I was planning to return later in the day with a group that had signed up for a nature-themed bike ride. My M.O. for guiding nature excursions is to capture common critters like brown snakes (small, tan, harmless snakes that eat worms and slugs) along the route ahead of time. If the participants don’t manage to find anything themselves, at least I can show them the one I found and then release it. Brown snakes are the most widespread and abundant snake in urban Philadelphia, easily found in gardens, vacant lots, cemeteries—basically anywhere you’ve got more than a couple square yards of vegetation. Everywhere, that was, except where I needed to find them that morning.

I waded through the weeds and lifted everything I could find—old boards, chunks of concrete, parts of furniture. What I was finding, instead of brown snakes, were beautiful yellow and brown snails.

I didn’t recognize them. As far as their shape, there were as basic a snail as you could imagine: a round spiral shell about as wide as a quarter, but what dazzled me was their patterns. No one was like another. Some were plain brown. Others were yellow with one or more dark stripes following the spiral of the shell all the way in.

Eventually, I did find a brown snake under part of a discarded file cabinet and tucked it into a jar for later, but I made a mental note to look up the snails.

It turns out they were grove snails (a.k.a. brown lipped snails or Cepaea nemoralis), a European species that humans have spread to North America. iNaturalist records show they are not uncommon in Philadelphia, yet, somehow I had missed them. Had I just simply not crossed paths with them before? Or, had I ignored them when they weren’t what I was looking for?

The grove snails were a hit for the cyclists and a great launching point for discussing the nature of waste spaces. Too often we ignore weedy railroad embankments as sites to connect with nature the way we might in proper parks. With a little attention, though, they can become outdoor classrooms as well as places to enjoy the beauty of the natural world.

Learning about the natural world can be stimulating in a purely intellectual or academic sense, but it can also open doors to visceral experience. You learn about a new creature, like the grove snail, and you feel something special when you find it. The world isn’t just a background to the routines of your life. It becomes a little more joyful, a little more wonderful, little by little, snail by snail.

A couple years later, I dragged my daughter along on a trip to check out some five-lined skinks that had been reported on an old stone wall in a park in Northeast Philadelphia. Although five-lined skinks are native to the area, these days they seem to only live in old, overgrown industrial sites along the Delaware River. My daughter was not thrilled to be there as her dad did something boring. I told her it would just take a minute to look for the lizards.

We didn’t find any skinks, but grove snails were everywhere. We found them in damp crevices between the stones or under rocks at the base of the wall, and each one was new and beautiful in its own way. We spent much longer than the promised minute, but I wasn’t complaining.

Books to give Mom for Mother’s Day

This week in North Philly Notes, we suggest a handful of regional gift books mothers might appreciate receiving for Mother’s Day.

A Guide to the Great Gardens of the Philadelphia Region
text by Adam Levine, photographs by Rob Cardillo

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Finally, for every resident and visitor to the region, a comprehensive guide to the gardens of eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware. Magnificently illustrated with nearly 200 full color photographs, A Guide to the Great Gardens of the Philadelphia Region provides essential information on how to locate and enjoy the finest gardens the area has to offer. As the horticultural epicenter of the United States, Philadelphia and the surrounding towns, suburbs, and countryside are blessed with more public gardens in a concentrated area than almost any other region in the world. Stretching from Trenton, New Jersey through Philadelphia and down to Newark, Delaware, this area (often called the Delaware Valley) offers more horticultural riches than a visitor can possibly see even in a couple of weeks of hectic garden hopping.

Love: A Philadelphia Affair
Beth Kephart

2386_regPhiladelphia has been at the heart of many books by award-winning author Beth Kephart, but none more so than the affectionate collection Love. This volume of personal essays and photographs celebrates the intersection of memory and place. Kephart writes lovingly, reflectively about what Philadelphia means to her. She muses about meandering on SEPTA trains, spending hours among the armor in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and taking shelter at Independence Mall during a downpour. Kephart also extends her journeys to the suburbs—Glenside, Bryn Mawr, and Ardmore—and beyond, to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Stone Harbor, New Jersey; and Wilmington, Delaware. What emerges is a valentine to the City of Brotherly Love and its environs. In Love, Philadelphia is “more than its icons, bigger than its tagline.”

Boathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing
Dotty Brown
The history of Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row is both wide and deep. Dotty Brown, an avid rower and former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, immersed herself in boathouse archives to provide a comprehensive history of rowing in Philadelphia. She takes readers behiboathouse-row_smnd the scenes to recount the era when rowing was the spectator sport of its time-and the subject of Thomas Eakins’ early artwork-through the heyday of the famed Kelly dynasty, and the fight for women to get the right to row. (Yes, it really was a fight, and it took generations to win.) With more than 160 photographs, a third of them in full color, Boathouse Row chronicles the “waves of change” as various groups of different races, classes, and genders fought for access to water and the sport.

City in a Park: A History of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System
James McClelland and Lynn Miller

2348_regIn City in a Park, James McClelland and Lynn Miller provide an affectionate and comprehensive history of this 200-year-old network of parks. Originated in the nineteenth century as a civic effort to provide a clean water supply to Philadelphia, Fairmount Park also furnished public pleasure grounds for boat races and hiking, among other activities. Millions today travel to the city to view its eighteenth-century villas, attend boat races on the Schuylkill River, hike the Wissahickon Creek, visit the Philadelphia Zoo, hear concerts in summer, stroll the city’s historic squares and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and enjoy its enormous collection of public art. Green initiatives flower today; Philadelphia lives amidst its parks. Filled with nearly 150 gorgeous full-color photographs, City in a Park chronicles the continuing efforts to create a twenty-first century version of what founder William Penn desired: a “greene countrie town.”

Forklore: Recipes and Tales from an American Bistro
Ellen Yin

Co-founded in 1997 by Ellen Yin, Fork, a casual but sophisticated restaurant nestled in Old City, has become one of Philadelphia’s top dining establishments. The eclectic, but distinctly American style of cooking–influenced by many ethnicities–is, Yin describes, “New American bistro-style cuisine.”
1912_reg.gifForklore tells the tale of this extraordinary dining establishment, while dishing out some delectable recipes. Yin brings to her writing the same qualities of careful attention and lively enthusiasm that characterize her best dishes. With great gusto, she describes how she fell in love with food, how Fork was born, and how her chefs have helped to create its unique cuisine. And throughout her story she liberally sprinkles recipes-simple, delicious, and easy to cook at home-that represent the best of New American Bistro cooking. There are nearly 100 recipes in all and every one has a story, served up by Yin with relish and delight. For anyone who likes a juicy story, well seasoned with zesty anecdotes and mouthwatering recipes, Forklore is a treat.

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