The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Hardcover, 190 pages, Workman Pub Co, List Price: $18.95 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
Author
Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

Bedridden and suffering from a neurological disorder, the author recounts the profound effect on her life caused by a gift of a snail in a potted plant and shares the lessons learned from her new companion about her the meaning of her life and the life of the small creature.

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Sound Of A Wild Snail Eating

THE SOUND OF A WILD SNAIL EATING


ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL

Copyright © 2010 Elisabeth Tova Bailey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56512-606-0

Contents

Prologue.............................................xi1 Field Violets......................................32 Discovery..........................................93 Explorations.......................................174 The Forest Floor...................................255 Life in a Microcosm................................316 Time and Territory.................................377 Thousands of Teeth.................................478 Telescopic Tentacles...............................539 Marvelous Spirals..................................6110 Secret Recipes....................................6911 Colonies of Hermits...............................7912 Midnight Leap.....................................8513 A Snail's Thoughts................................9514 Deep Sleep........................................10315 Cryptic Life......................................11316 Affairs of a Snail................................11917 Bereft............................................12918 Offspring.........................................13319 Release...........................................14320 Winter Snail......................................14921 Spring Rain.......................................15522 Night Stars.......................................159Epilogue.............................................163Acknowledgments......................................171Appendix: Terraria...................................177Selected Sources.....................................179Permissions..........................................187

Chapter One

FIELD VIOLETS

at my feet when did you get here? snail -Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

In early spring, a friend went for a walk in the woods and, glancing down at the path, saw a snail. Picking it up, she held it gingerly in the palm of her hand and carried it back toward the studio where I was convalescing. She noticed some field violets on the edge of the lawn. Finding a trowel, she dug a few up, then planted them in a terra-cotta pot and placed the snail beneath their leaves. She brought the pot into the studio and put it by my bedside.

"I found a snail in the woods. I brought it back and it's right here beneath the violets."

"You did? Why did you bring it in?"

"I don't know. I thought you might enjoy it."

"Is it alive?"

She picked up the brown acorn-sized shell and looked at it.

"I think it is."

Why, I wondered, would I enjoy a snail? What on earth would I do with it? I couldn't get out of bed to return it to the woods. It was not of much interest, and if it was alive, the responsibility-especially for a snail, something so uncalled for-was overwhelming.

My friend hugged me, said good-bye, and drove off.

At age thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe, I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms. I had thought I was indestructible. But I wasn't. If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn't. Medical specialists at several major clinics couldn't diagnose the infectious culprit. I was in and out of the hospital for months, and the complications were life threatening. An experimental drug that became available stabilized my condition, though it would be several grueling years to a partial recovery and a return to work. My doctors said the illness was behind me, and I wanted to believe them. I was ecstatic to have most of my life back.

But out of the blue came a series of insidious relapses, and once again, I was bedridden. Further, more sophisticated testing showed that the mitochondria in my cells no longer functioned correctly and there was damage to my autonomic nervous system; all functions not consciously directed, including heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, had gone haywire. The drug that had previously helped now caused dangerous side effects; it would soon be removed from the market.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive. Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness, and intolerable loss.

Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties. It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour, yet days slipped silently past. Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

I had been moved to a studio apartment where I could receive the care I needed. My own farmhouse, some fifty miles away, was closed up. I did not know if or when I'd ever make it home again. For now, my only way back was to close my eyes and remember. I could see the early spring there, the purple field violets-like those at my bedside-running rampant through the yard. And the fragrant small pink violets that I had planted in the little woodland garden to the north of my house-they, too, would be in bloom. Though not usually hardy this far north, somehow they survived. In my mind I could smell their sweetness.

Before my illness, my dog, Brandy, and I had often wandered the acres of forest that stretched beyond the house to a hidden, mountain-fed brook. The brook's song of weather and season followed us as we crisscrossed its channel over partially submerged boulders. On the trail home, in the boggiest of spots, perched on tiny islands of root and moss, I found diminutive wild white violets, their throats faintly striped with purple.

These field violets in the pot at my bedside were fresh and full of life, unlike the usual cut flowers brought by other friends. Those lasted just a few days, leaving murky, odoriferous vase water. In my twenties I had earned my living as a gardener, so I was glad to have this bit of garden right by my bed. I could even water the violets with my drinking glass.

But what about this snail? What would I do with it? As tiny as it was, it had been going about its day when it was picked up. What right did my friend and I have to disrupt its life? Though I couldn't imagine what kind of life a snail might lead.

I didn't remember ever having noticed any snails on my countless hikes in the woods. Perhaps, I thought, looking at the nondescript brown creature, it was precisely because they were so inconspicuous. For the rest of the day the snail stayed inside its shell, and I was too worn out from my friend's visit to give it another thought.

(Continues...)