A World in a Shell
Snail Stories for a Time of Extinctions
Following the trails of Hawai'i's snails to explore the simultaneously biological and cultural significance of extinction.
In this time of extinctions, the humble snail rarely gets a mention. And yet snails are disappearing faster than any other species. In A World in a Shell, Thom van Dooren offers a collection of snail stories from Hawai'i—once home to more than 750 species of land snails, almost two-thirds of which are now gone. Following snail trails through forests, laboratories, museums, and even a military training facility, and meeting with scientists and Native Hawaiians, van Dooren explores ongoing processes of ecological and cultural loss as they are woven through with possibilities for hope, care, mourning, and resilience.
Van Dooren recounts the fascinating history of snail decline in the Hawaiian Islands: from deforestation for agriculture, timber, and more, through the nineteenth century shell collecting mania of missionary settlers, and on to the contemporary impacts of introduced predators. Along the way he asks how both snail loss and conservation efforts have been tangled up with larger processes of colonization, militarization, and globalization. These snail stories provide a potent window into ongoing global process of environmental and cultural change, including the largely unnoticed disappearance of countless snails, insects, and other less charismatic species. Ultimately, van Dooren seeks to cultivate a sense of wonder and appreciation for our damaged planet, revealing the world of possibilities and relationships that lies coiled within a snail's shell.
“This story unfurls like the circling shells of our exquisite Hawaiian kāhuli snails and into the world of those cultivating their survival; while nudging us all to mindfulness of the precarious interconnected beauty of life for all beings in these times.”
Mehana Vaughan, author of Kaiāulu: Gathering Tides
“A brilliant exploration of some of the most beautiful and threatened species on the planet. We see ourselves, too, in a new light through these powerful stories.”
David George Haskell, author of Sounds Wild and Broken, The Songs of Trees, and Pulitzer finalist, The Forest Unseen
“A World in a Shell follows the slime trails of snails across time and oceans, finding new perspectives on extinction and survival. A revelatory exploration.”
Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts
“Tenderly luminous, van Dooren's book draws us into the quiet wonder of the silvery paths of kāhuli snails entangled with human worlds of violence and care.”
Candace Fujikane, author of Mapping Abundance
“Deeply inhabiting the worlds of Hawaiian land snails, van Dooren's 'field philosophical' method locates him thickly in critical places where living and dying are at stake. I am moved intellectually and emotionally by his development of the work of both mourning and hope in the teeth of irretrievable loss.”
Donna J. Haraway, author Staying with the Trouble
“Anyone who has ever wondered how small beings matter should read this book. Thom van Dooren tells the histories of endangered Hawaiian tree snails, showing us their beauty, their diversity, their importance to Indigenous Hawaiians, and the social worlds they create through slime. Yet predation and habitat destruction make species disappear—for all time—every day. A World in a Shell is a lyrical elegy, as moving and beautifully written as a poem.”
Anna Tsing, author of The Mushroom at the End of the World; co-editor of Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene
“Thanks to this book, gastropods are now entering the new genre of alternative natural history where everything that had been excluded from 'natural' renderings of life is slowly brought back — this time at a snail's pace through slime networks! Van Dooren has the knack to transform the trauma of extinction into an occasion for we humans and for some Hawaiian ways of life to repair and thrive. 'Mournful hope' indeed.”
Bruno Latour, author of Down to Earth
“Thom van Dooren's book is like a silvery trail of slime (or pedal mucus, as the biologists have it) that we are invited to follow, into the magical and fascinating world of Hawaiian snails. Here we meet the snails themselves, as both mysterious individuals with agency and as beautiful links in an evolutionary chain stretching back millions of years. We meet the people insisting that learning and telling their stories is important work, as well as those tending to some captive populations in 'mournful hope' that someday there might again be a place for them in the great sea of islands in the Pacific. Van Dooren pays careful attention to the snails both as individuals worthy of love and as a framework through which to apprehend the socio-ecological forces that have shaped contemporary Hawai'i. Follow the slime! You will not be disappointed.”
Emma Marris, author of Wild Souls
"Attentive, elegiac… Eschewing more obvious fauna, A World in a Shell makes a strong case for overcoming 'geographical and taxonomic biases,' noting that every species lost is a tragedy."