Tigers, Humans, and Snails

John Goodrich
Liuty, a male tiger whose name, according to John Vaillant in The Tiger, is ‘an efficient word combining vicious, ferocious, cold-blooded, and bold,’ at a Siberian wildlife rehabilitation center run by the tiger catcher Vladimir Kruglov

Whether birdsong at dawn or just a weed in a sidewalk, nature is all around us. Yet all too frequently we only appreciate it when it’s out of reach. For Elizabeth Tova Bailey, it was a mysterious disease that separated her from the natural world. But then a friend brought some violets in a flowerpot, into which she had placed a snail, and with that small gift came a deep reconnection with life, and a slow healing.

At the age of thirty-four, while on holiday in a small town in the European Alps, Bailey began to feel that something was wrong with her body. Time became strange, and she had a tendency to feel lost and confused. Within a few weeks of returning to New England, she says, she spiraled into “a deep darkness, falling farther and farther away until I am impossibly distant. I cannot come back up; I cannot reach my body.” Doctors cannot put a name to her ailment, and soon she finds herself lying, almost entirely incapacitated, in a hospital ward, “flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness, and intolerable loss.” Things seem so out of control that she fears even to sleep, in case her slender grasp on life should slip entirely away. The disease played her as a cat does a mouse, over years plunging her into helplessness, then letting her crawl slowly out, before again driving her down.

It was during a period of convalescence in a studio apartment in early spring that a friend brought her the flowerpot. Unable even to rise from her bed, Bailey seems to have been annoyed by the gift. But then, around dinnertime, she noticed the snail gliding slowly down the pot, exploring its new world. Its slow, fluid movement mesmerized her—perhaps because she herself was forced to live at a snail’s pace.

Bailey expected the snail to wander off in the night, but the next morning she spied it, neatly tucked up in its shell under the violets. Then she noticed a square hole in an envelope that had been placed near the pot:

This was baffling. How could a hole—a square hole—appear in an envelope overnight? Then I thought of the snail and its evening activity. The snail was clearly nocturnal. It must have some kind of teeth, and it wasn’t shy about using them.

Thinking that the snail might like something more than paper to eat, she took a few long-gone flowers from a vase in her sick room and placed them in the dish beneath the pot. That evening, the snail made its way to them and “investigated the offering with great interest.” Then,

a petal started to disappear at a…

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