When I lived in Denmark I visited the art museum in Copenhagen. Tucked away in an alcove near the back was a little shelf holding a blender filled with water containing a plastic goldfish. Upon enquiring on the purpose of the exhibit I was told that the viewer was being presented with a dilemma, to wrestle with their conscience and choose between life and death. I learned this exhibit was a replica of an original, where ten blenders were on display at an art museum in Kolding, and had had live goldfish in them. Viewers had had the option to press the 'on' button and take the life of the fish, or walk away. Only one of the blenders were ever switched on, and the two fish within it died. Due to complaints against the nature of the exhibit, the power was disconnected and the question remained posed in theory. As I looked at the plastic goldfish floating in the water, I imagined the real exhibit, with real fish, real lives helpless to defend themselves against the blades always present below them...and the capricious will of a more powerful being who could simply press a button and end their life.
I remained troubled by this scenario for a long time. It was a successful exhibit. The artist's work had taken me to a place of discomfort, and made me aware of my place in it. This exhibit wasn't about the fish, it was about man and his ability to choose to take a life which appeared to be of little worth to either him or the creature it belonged to. I wondered what would happen if it were not a goldfish, but an elephant, or a tiger, or a sheep, or an eagle. Would people react differently if it were a 'greater' or 'lesser' life? What if it were an old man, a convicted criminal, or a newborn baby? My thoughts frightened me, so I stopped thinking about the goldfish anymore.
Five years passed and I found myself thinking of this exhibit again, though it came back to me in an indirect way. It all began with the planting of the flower garden earlier this summer and an invasion of snails. My garden gives me such peace, to be around beautiful plants as they bloom and grow, their leaves and buds unfurling in the sun, the scent of the herbs and the lavender, the riotous proliferation of the tomato plants. It is so wonderful to watch the garden birds, the butterflies, the honeybees and bumblebees, the little red squirrel, the doves, the crows and the magpies all sharing the garden and living peacefully together.
Then one morning shortly after planting a large variety of annuals in amongst the perennials I discovered our back garden was infested with snails. It was as though they had appeared out of nowhere, I began to collect them up, counting to 150 and then giving up. The pail was heavy with their weight when I finally took them far away and left them in their new location out in the woods. The next day as many were back and my poor flowers were clearly losing against them. I agonised what to do. I did not want to kill them, but they certainly didn't seem willing to compromise and find some other place to be. Somehow my garden had become the snail version of Noma and word was getting out. Every snail within miles around was coming to see what the fuss was about. As the days went by I continued to collect the snails in the morning and relocate them far away, sadly looking over the straggly remains of their festivities upon my return. In the end I had to admit the snails were winning. No matter what I did, they would succeed in killing everything I had planted if something wasn't done.
I asked my husband to take me to the garden center and help me choose a product to 'deal with them'. Off we went, him to translate the Swedish instructions and me to look at the photos and warnings on the large selection of spray cans and pellet boxes available. We chose one after a great deal of reading and consideration. The options were clearly based on the buyer's level of hatred against snails. The most violent one involved a spray that you shoot directly onto them that melts them the way sulphuric acid would us, a painfully slow and messy death. What we chose was a product they eat, a pellet that makes them feel full so they simply starve to death eating delicious tasting pellets. (A comparison to fast food sprang to mind). I put the box bearing a photo of a happy looking snail chomping through some lettuce leaves in the garden shed. We would put the pellets down in the evening, even though the pellets were safe for every other living creature I still didn't want to take any chances. We waited until dusk and laid the pellets down as instructed, the gardens suddenly prettily confettied with bright blue dots. I went to bed that night telling myself, 'They are only snails, they don't count.' I went to sleep and dreamt of eating fast food until I died of hunger.
The next morning I wandered through the back garden in a mixed state of apprehension and hope. The pellets were gone, the plants seemed untouched, and there wasn't a snail to be seen. At all. I fostered the wild hope that perhaps a deer ate the harmless pellets while the snails decided to bail at the sight of all that blue. Then I found them. Little snail corpses half hidden on their way into the shadowed places they slept during the hot hours of the day. I had killed living things. I had done it. I had taken life. I couldn't bear it.
That afternoon I removed the plants they liked and placed them in planters where they couldn't reach them. I went back to the garden store and found pretty perennials they wouldn't eat and planted them instead. The snails continued to turn up on damp days but my flowers were safe, and it seemed that we could live together after all.
Several weeks passed, my plants continued to thrive, and the snails seemed content to eat the early apples which had fallen from the apple tree or helpfully clean up the leftover birdseed under the bird feeder. I began to observe them more carefully now I no longer perceived them as pests. They turned out to be interesting creatures. When they found a seed or a piece of interesting snail fare, they would tilt their head and antennae towards it and exhibit a singular inquisitive charm and joyfulness at their find. They seemed utterly happy just to be alive and doing snail things.
A few days later my husband and I began a project to create a new garden bed for herbs and lavender on the west side of the house. It was an area which badly needed attention and once we gave it our time we realised that the bedrock and grass alongside it had become boggy from the prolific spread of a choking weed. I began the enormous task of clearing it out and found hidden around the shaded clefts of the rock snails sleeping side by side in pairs. Curious, I looked closer, convinced it had to be an anomaly. Snails contain within them both genders so do not need to form attachments or partnerships to reproduce, yet there dotted around the shaded parts of the bedrock were snails side by side with their heads tilted in towards each other until they were touching. Although it seemed improbable, I was observing what looked very much like something done of free will. It seemed they chose to sleep in little pairs. It seemed they were content.
Having to appreciate the similarity of these little organisms sheltering together to the behaviour of other more highly evolved species felt wrong to me, yet who was I to decide what a snail experiences or why. They have been living on Earth a very, very long time, perhaps as long as 600 million years.
Then something completely unexpected occurred. At the back of our home we have a large wooden terrace. Part of it is covered with a sail for shade. Under it we have an outdoor sofa, some of which is exposed if it begins to rain. Many times we have awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of torrential rain falling even though the weather forecast promised dry weather. We began to pile the furniture up every night just in case, a lot of unnecessary work as it turned out.
One evening as I was watering the garden, carefully stepping over the occasional snail meandering across the lawn, I noticed there were more snails than usual, and wondered at this change of events. As usual I was looking at the sky for signs of rain. It was clear. While I was debating whether to take a chance and leave the outdoor furniture in place or not, a thought struck me. I always watered the garden at nearly the same time every evening and there hadn't been any snails out on any of the evenings that had turned into dry nights. Those same evenings we had packed up the furniture and no rain had fallen. Excited by the thought forming in my mind I went in and mentioned to my husband I wished to try an experiment. We packed up the furniture. That night it rained heavily.
The next night there were no snails, bravely we left the furniture in place. We woke up to a garden dry as a bone. The next night it was the same. When the snails came out again in their numbers, we packed up. It rained.
It was at this time I remembered the goldfish in a blender. I remember the night I had put the fast food pellets down for the snails, thinking their lives didn't count in a clumsy attempt to alleviate my conscience. But I was wrong. All life counts no matter what shape it comes in. And to the life inhabiting that shape, it counts very much. Not understanding or easily seeing another life's immediate or long-term usefulness shouldn't justify the taking of its life or viewing it as somehow worthless. As it turned out, understanding the snails and managing their appetites added value to my life and garden. They are efficient at cleaning up the fallen apples and can be reliably counted on to find out if it's going to rain in the night or not.
After all, 600 million years is a lot of experience. I just had to learn to listen.
Originally posted on Paradigms Bend August 8 2012