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 barely discernible rate. I listened carefully. I could hear it eating. The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously. I watched, transfixed, as over the course of an hour the snail meticulously ate an entire purple petal for dinner.
The convalescent room was entirely white, and though it had a window Bailey could not sit up to see out of it. While she was trapped inside a stark white box, the snail became not only a focus of attention but a friend. For weeks it lived happily in the flowerpot, descending each night to eat withered flowers, and often, when she awoke in the stillness of an interminable night, Bailey could hear it munching.
The snail liked it when the violets were watered, waving its tentacles in apparent delight as it descended to the saucer to drink. But it had dislikes too, and was particularly displeased when new soil was added to its pot. This it refused to touch, progressing to the pot’s rim by way of a conveniently placed violet leaf. When the sandy soil was replaced with humus from the woods, however, the snail once again took to sleeping under the violets, and making its way over the soil.
As time went by the snail became more adventurous. It climbed down the crate its pot stood on and ate the label off a vitamin bottle. It even nibbled at the letters stamped on the crate in india ink. Bailey felt that “the snail and I were both living in altered landscapes not of our choosing; I figured we shared a sense of loss and displacement.” But there was more to the relationship than that:
By day, the strangeness of my situation was sharpest: I was bed-bound at a time my friends and peers were moving forward in their careers and raising families. Yet the snail’s daytime sleeping habits gave me a fresh perspective; I was not the only one resting away the days.
Bailey found that watching the snail’s purposeful nocturnal explorations calmed her often frantic and frustrated mind. “With its mysterious, fluid movement, the snail was the quintessential tai chi master,” she writes.
Eventually a terrarium was obtained for the snail, and in this larger world the creature began to display astonishing abilities. It moved over the tips of mosses without bending them in a way that seemed to defy the laws of physics, and so impeccable was its balance that it could perch on the rim of a mussel shell as surely as if it were glued to it. Several times she caught the snail grooming itself. Although unable to hold a book or read, Bailey found observing the snail effortless—and endlessly fascinating.
As she began to recover, Bailey read extensively about snails, discovering that they possess a sword-like tongue with around 2,640 teeth. Their tentacles, she learned, have eyes at their tips and are expressive of mood, either drooping with dismay or becoming turgid with alertness. The Chinese characters for “snail” read as “slime cow”—and slime, as Bailey writes, “is the sticky essence of a gastropod’s soul.” When a snail wants to move it secretes “pedal mucous,” which the ripple of its foot muscle momentarily transforms from solid to liquid, so aiding its progress. So adherent is the substance that the nineteenth-century naturalist E. Sandford showed that a snail can hoist fifty-one times its own weight up a window blind using its pedal mucous. But pedal mucous is just one of many kinds of slime snails produce. If harmed, snails can even secrete a medicinal slime that will protect them from infection.
Seized, perhaps, with the spirit of the nineteenth-century experimental naturalists, Bailey decided to feed her snail a special treat of cornstarch and cornmeal:
It was a big mistake: the snail over-ate. It climbed in a staggering sort of way to the top of the terrarium. Clearly suffering from a severe case of indigestion, it stayed there for hours, excreting wastes from all orifices.
I was terribly worried. If the snail didn’t recover from cornstarch indulgence, then how, I wondered selfishly, could I survive my illness without the snail for a companion?
Surprisingly, there is ample evidence of intelligence among snails, and even some indications of social feelings. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote of a
pair of land-snails…one of which was [observed to be] weakly, [placed by a Mr. Lonsdale] into a small and ill-provided garden. After a short time the strong and healthy individual disappeared, and was traced by its track of slime over a wall into an adjoining well-stocked garden. Mr. Lonsdale concluded that it had deserted its sickly mate; but, after an absence of twenty-four hours, it returned, and apparently communicated the result of its successful exploration, for both then started along the same track and disappeared over the wall.
No less than the US Department of Agriculture warns that snails have been known to work together to escape their shipping crate while en route to a restaurant. As Bailey puts it, “With one purpose in mind, they join forces, push up with their muscular heads against the top of the crate, and pop the lid right off, gliding slowly but steadily toward freedom.”
One morning Bailey looked into her terrarium and saw eight tiny eggs, which set her wondering how her snail had conceived. According to the nineteenth-century American zoologist Louis Agassiz, the snail is “a very model lover” that “will spend hours…paying attentions the most assiduous to the object of [its] affections.” But there is a sting in the tail of snail romance, for as explained by another nineteenth-century observer, the courtship of snails “realises the Pagan fable of Cupid’s arrows, for, previous to their union, each snail throws a winged dart or arrow at its partner.” These spicula amoris, as the love-darts of snails are known, are unique in the animal kingdom, and can be extraordinarily beautiful. Formed of calcium carbonate, they can be one third the length of the snail’s shell, and sport four fin-like blades and a harpoon-sharp tip. They are, technically speaking, not necessary for mating, and not all snails have them, but it’s thought that they contain a special slime that improves the longevity of sperm.
All snails are hermaphrodites. In some species, both individuals play both parts, while in others they must decide whether to be boy or girl. If both want to be male, or both female, conflict may arise. Once fertilized, a snail can carry sperm around for years, and if isolated it can also self-fertilize, explaining how Bailey’s solitary snail managed to give birth.
Some days after laying its eight eggs, the snail vanished. Bailey searched as widely as she could for it, and as the hours passed she realized that she was “almost more attached to the snail than to my own tenuous life.” But then a friend visited and located it in the terrarium, under a patch of moss—along with around 150 eggs.
Bailey’s health was by now slowly improving, and she longed to return home. In preparation, she had the friend who had brought her the snail release it where she had first found it, along with its offspring. But she did take one tiny baby snail, which she kept in a huge, antique glass bowl. But something had changed: “Watching a snail began to take patience. I wondered at what point in my convalescence I might leave the snail’s world behind.”
Years later Bailey discovered that she was suffering from a disease of the mitochondria—the tiny organelles that power our cells—which she may have acquired as a result of viral infection. She also learned the identity of her snail: it was a white-lipped forest snail, Neohelix albolabris, which is native to the eastern woodlands of North America, from Georgia to Quebec.
Like Bailey, Charles Darwin was afflicted, for much of his adult life, with a mystery ailment (now tentatively diagnosed as Chagas disease). Did Darwin’s illness give him the patience to undertake his lifelong studies on nature’s minutiae? If not, it’s hard to know what else could have transformed the energetic young Darwin of the Beagle voyage into an uncannily patient observer and perpetual valetudinarian.