I don’t remember how I came across Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s book, “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” (Algonquin Books, 2010). I downloaded it on Kindle, and was so quickly drawn in that I could not put it down until sadly, I had finished it.
This true story is both straightforward and complex. It is about a woman who, while on holiday in Italy, is stricken with a mysterious disease. She returns to the United States, and becomes increasingly debilitated to the point where she is bedridden and looked after by a caregiver in what she calls a “white room,” away from her beloved home, her dog and her garden. Day after day, she lies in bed, unable to perform the simplest of tasks. As her universe becomes smaller, her mind remains as active as ever, and her attention to detail is heightened and focused.
One day, a visitor brings her some wild violets in a pot. In the pot is a small snail.
Bailey writes: “Those field violets in the pot at my bedside were fresh and full of life, unlike the usual cut flowers brought by 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?” *
The snail initially intrigues, then fascinates, and, for a while, consumes her. Bailey makes it her mission to research woodland snails, learning more about their diets and their lives in the wild. Suddenly, she is DOING something, and her days acquire a sense of purpose. In her world, when even turning over in bed is an arduous undertaking, she spends most of her time observing the snail, first in the pot of violets, then in a terrarium that she keeps by her bed. She is amazed and captivated by its daily routines – what it eats, how it gets around, where it sleeps.
“ Whereas the energy of my human visitors wore me out, the snail inspired me. Its curiosity and grace pulled me further into its peaceful and solitary world. Watching it go about its life in the small ecosystem of the terrarium put me at ease.”
Bailey eventually recovers to the point where she can return home. She still isn’t strong enough to work in her gardens, but she spends hours sitting outside with her dog, enjoying them with a new appreciation.
“My gardens were awakening, and whenever possible I was outside on a chaise longue with Brandy at my side. We watched the sunlight find its way through the branches of the crabapple tree, dappling the blue squill and crocus, and we looked for the pointed noses of tulip leaves as they emerged in the perennial beds. Each week more perennials came into bloom, and the hedge that bordered the garden began to fill with nesting birds”…”I could close my eyes and feel the sun warm my whole length and the wind ruffle its way over me. My ears filled with the dozy hum of bees and those tiny and odd insect sounds that rise up all around, the sounds mingling in my mind with the good, deep smell of earthy life.”
This is a book which, for those of us who are close to the land, provides a new perspective on the flora and fauna that live there – especially the intricate world of the tiny and often overlooked creatures that inhabit our world and our gardens. It is also a powerful and moving account of how an active life can be suddenly and drastically changed.
*Excerpts used with permission from the author and Algonquin books.