The tower-shell snail teaches us how to be human

A whole bunch of Tower Shells

The little turret-shell/tower-shell is the home of the common sea snail. They’ve spent millions of years perfecting the art of home-making and now they’re finally ready to pass their secrets on to us. Shhh—Here’s how it works: We civilized folk think in terms of “time-lines,” past, present and future—an abstraction of our lives. It’s easy to become untethered to those strand-ed “life lines.”

Nature’s spiral

The sea snail, on the other hand, thinks about “time spirals” that become tangible, functional objects—literal home-making. Every day, they are laying down new increments of a continuous spiral that will demarcate, protect and give meaning to their life. There’s never a question about where they started, where they are now, or where they’re going. Life is a tower. Life is a shell!

Artist/sculptor Joe O’Connell understands the lesson of the “tower-shell snail” very well. However, he also knows that the sea snail’s secret is so simple that it’s actually hard to convey to humans. Fortunately, he speaks a unique language that can communicate the story quickly and powerfully—spoken in a way that everybody understands the world around, all 7.6 billion of them. Art!

“Growing Home”

In 2018, Joe got the chance to speak to the world through his art of monumental sculpture, at a project in San Diego, California. Right smack-dab in the middle of a modern day “piazza” at the Park 12 Collection, he quietly placed his statement called “Growing Home,” for all to see—and what a beautiful story he tells. He speaks of people and their city in a way that even a sea snail would understand. This modern-day fable is told in the form of a tower-shell. We suddenly see ourselves like slow-moving sea creatures, rather than fast and frantic. We are methodically creating events that we instinctively lay down in a spiral day by day—building a beautiful soaring form around ourselves that literally becomes the shell/evidence of lives well lived. We magically become master-builders within a universe of master-builders. Meaning-makers on a grand and heroic scale. Most assuredly, we are spiraling down and growing home!

You might also be interested in another story with music that we wrote some years ago called “Homecoming.”

One might call an abandoned house a haunted ruins, but we like to think of it as a container, filled with stories just waiting to be told and retold—built and rebuilt—lived and relived.

Peaceful Setting

While walking the woods and back-roads of Tuscany, it is inevitabile that you’ll come across at least one unexpected hidden gem. The other day, while hiking the Borselli-Castelnuovo anello (circle or loop) in the early hours of the morning, we found one of those ancient places called the “Houses of Lavacchio.” Not every ruins is noteworthy, but this one made us pause longer than usual as we got wrapped-up in its story—his-story (or rather, her-story, since we all know that houses are female).

Lavacchio Ruins

Who lived there? When was it built? What were the people like and were there children playing? Why did they leave? Was it their dream to be perched up on that hillside at the top of the mountain called Pratomagno with an incredible panoramic view of the Tuscan hills beyond? Why hasn’t anyone bought it to breathe new life into those old stone walls? And so the questions and conversation continued as we walked the long and gentle road leading to the houses, imagining the past and the future of this forgotten place. It was easy to drift into fantasy amid the cool summer breezes and the tender sounds of the country—the birds, the buzzing of the bees and even a baby cinghiale (wild boar), scurrying from the underbrush along the side of the road, confused and running for cover.

Slowly Collapsing

The roofs of the ghostly houses were mostly long gone, now becoming great piles of splintered wood beams and clay tiles, randomly collapsed into the rooms below. Plants were growing everywhere in and around the decaying rubble, vying for their own claim on the future. Even the brick and stone walls were falling into the fray—water creeping into every vulnerable cracked mortar joint to expand with each consecutive freeze and thaw—slowly . . . oh so slowly—pushing and prying away at every weighty piece that was carefully and intentionally laid in place by strong  hands. The first people of Lavacchio surely meant for their labors to last longer than their lifetimes, in fact they anticipated the houses would be there for generations to come. Actually, as true Tuscans they would have set their sights on nothing short of “forever.”

Imagine It

We don’t know when it was built, but the years for Lavacchio could easily be counted in the hundreds since the crumbling of the roof and walls to this point in time surely would have taken the better part of a century. We imagined that some new, vibrant, young energetic pioneers will arrive some day and be overcome with vision and the spirit of adventure. They will claim this lost artifact as their own, and return that sacred space perched on the side of the mountain to its former glory. Falling in love with the remote life, they will likely create a vegetable garden, and will perhaps tend chickens, cows, pigs, rabbits and sheep—many of which will live in the restored stalls beneath the houses. Of course a few cats and dogs will complete the picture along with a horse or two for evening rides through the wooded hillside. Life will certainly be sweet.

Road to Lavacchio

Until then, we will continue to enjoy our hikes and allow ourselves to fall madly in love with the thousands of romantic Tuscan possibilities, as our vivid imaginings of exciting reclamations abound. Oh, those dreams and futures that lay waiting to be discovered and recovered from beneath the rubble! This tarnished gem just happened to be along trail number 25, on the “road to Lavacchio.”

Every once in a while we run across an absolute gem—something completely unexpected that makes us breathe a collective, “Ahhhh!”

In early June we encountered such a gem: a lovely bed and breakfast in Ronchamp, called La Maison D’hôtes du Parc.

By now we are pretty capable travelers, having stayed in a range of places. Sure there’s been an occasional dive—some place, somewhere in the middle of nowhere with only a hope to sleep through the night. But generally, we find places that are worth a return visit. And some, warrant and guarantee many happy returns. (more…)