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Force of nature: Ruth Brooks
One thing that Dan Lewis was not expecting when he went along to a talk on the homing instinct of snails was to get a fit of giggles...
Ruth Brooks' A Slow Passion has been a long time coming. Now in her seventies, the grandmother from Totnes in Devon was stood on the Landmarc 100 stage dancing along to some 1920s jazz tune as we took our seats. It wasn't part of the act - it was very much part of Ruth who is palpably having the time of her life.
Having won BBC Radio 4's So You Want To Be A Scientist project back in 2010, she was given the opportunity of help and support to study her thesis that snails possessed a homing instinct. This was born out of an obsession which she explained had led to her staying out in her garden until midnight moving snails away from her precious plants - having decided she couldn't bring herself to poison them. One day, sat reading a copy of the Guinness Book of World Record 1975 in her garden with a cup of tea, she watched the snails inevitable slide toward her prized delphiniums, and had an idea. If there were to be snails in her garden, she thought, then she would see if any could beat 1975's fastest snail in the world, Archie from Norfolk.
So, she marked them with some red nail polish, called "red desire" which also dated from the 1970s - "just shows you, those were the days" said Ruth - and set them under starter's orders. Despite having placed them a good distance away, they all came back to the flower bed where she'd found them. "It did take some of them a few days," Ruth explained, "but they did come back." She had since written a book about it all, and her experiences learning to prove her thesis using scientific methods which was called A Slow Passion.
To get to this point in her talk took half an hour. But, do not misunderstand, this was not a bad thing. Ruth engaged with the audience at every given opportunity - a born entertainer, as we should have known from her dancing when we entered the room.
"Who is a scientist?" she had asked, "Put your hands up!"
"Who is a gardener? Put your hands up!"
"Who likes snails? Put your hands up!"
Hands had been shooting up and down, tangents had been followed, and interjections had been flying all over the place throughout the story of Ruth's journey to the Hay Festival stage - so it really came as no surprise that a half hour had passed, and in fact very little had been said about the actual homing instinct of snails. This was fine with me - this was my first experience of the kind of gonzo approach to event speaking that Hunter S. Thompson would have been proud of and I was absolutely loving it - but Louise Gray from The Daily Telegraph who was chairing the event gently suggested that it might be time to speed things up so as to make sure there was time for audience questions. "Oh yes, and I've my experiment to do too so... five minutes and we'll get to those." responded Ruth.
A good ten minutes later: the experiments. Sitting on stage throughout had been a little plastic box filled with vegetation and a piece of A2 paper with the points of the compass marked on it, along with a series of circles. Was this to be a Dan Brown-esque revelation of a secret code known only to snails? Well, yes and no. This was Ruth's experiment, or as it turned out experiments. She hoped to prove the speed of snails and that they actually had a predisposition to head toward magnetic north. So, with the help of her assistants (taken from the audience of course) four painted snails were placed in the centre of the circles, a stopwatch was assigned to a gentleman in the front row and we were encourage to join in with her starting call of "Ready, steady... Slow!"
We'd all been asked to choose a team, Green, Blue, Orange, and Red to make the experience that bit more exciting. We watched with eager anticipation as Green got off to an incredible start. In fact, it was such a good start that the other colours never stood a chance.
"He's a juvenile," explained Ruth, "so he's faster."
"Orange has mounted Red!" came a shout.
"That's cheating! Red's disqualified!" cried another voice.
"Why? Orange is on top of Red! It's not his fault!"
"No, good point." the voice conceded, "Disqualify Orange!"
Meanwhile, Green was already stretching out his neck - if snails have necks - to win the race.
"Three minutes, twelve seconds." declared the time keeper.
"Though, he has gone South East." chimed a dissenting voice. The ignorance of youth I thought.
But nobody was listening. Our hearts were with the juvenile Green snail, the disqualified Orange and the wrongly accused Red. They were with Ruth Brooks, the septuagenarian scientist with a passion for snails, not slugs.
Dan Lewis, for Waterstones.com/blog
You can buy Ruth's book A Slow Passion: Snails, My Garden and Me from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/s6sdlu), as well as online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/10PgGqP). And if you get the chance to see her at an event, do so.