A remarkable journey of survival and resilience, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating shows how a small part of the natural world can illuminate our own human existence and deepen our appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.
The following is an extract from the first chapter of this incredible story of a friendship between a critically-ill woman and… a snail.
Distant sound of an ambulance siren. Distant sound of doctors talking. My eyelids heavy as boulders. I try to open them to a slit, just for a few seconds, but they close against my will. All I can do is breathe.
The doctors will know how to fix me. They will stop this. I keep breathing. What if my breath stops? I need to sleep, but I am afraid to sleep. I try to watch over myself; if I go to sleep, I may never wake up again…
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.
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 terracotta 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 goodbye and drove off.
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, smelly 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…”
Find out what happened next…
Elizabeth Tova Bailey The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
National Outdoor Book Awards – Natural History Literature – 2010
Books for Better Life – Inspirational Memoir – 2011
William Saroyan International Prize for Writing – Non-fiction – 2012
“This slim, thoughtful book is a miniature masterpiece.” – The Independent
Image credits: pixabay.com/3003717