“The velocity of the ill, however, is like that of the snail.”
– Emily Dickinson
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a beautifully written book interweaving her experience with chronic illness with her life co-habiting with a snail. Perhaps my own chronic illness gave the book a certain poignancy but I couldn’t put it down.
The book had been on my wish list for so long that I had forgotten what it was about until a post over on Bimblings reminded me. Read the book but also read the post, both are excellent, high quality pieces of writing.
Back to Wild Snails… Each chapter is snail sized, perfect for those of us with brain fog or hands which don’t like to hold books. It is scattered with quotes from others as well as quotable phrases from Bailey.
“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… Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties.”
Unable to get out of bed, a friend brings her some flowers and a snail from nearby woods, something I’ve recommended before as a way of connecting with nature when you can’t leave your house. Friends have come bearing gifts of conkers, acorns, interesting looking leaves but so far no animals!
“The tiny, intimate sound of the snails eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.”
I suspect that anyone who has been unable to leave their bed or house for long periods of time knows the feeling of loneliness, of enforced solitary confinement and for Bailey, the snail would alleviate some of this additional pain. But more than that, the snail would teach her and guide her like a mentor. Watching the snail “provided a sort of meditation; [her] often frantic and frustrated thoughts would gradually settle down to match its calm, smooth pace.”
In between her reflections on the snail and her own life, are interesting facts, for example her particular snail possessed around 2,640 teeth in it’s tiny mouth. And a snail’s world is painted predominately by smell, taste and touch. In learning about the snail, she sees herself:
“I learned that snails are extremely sensitive to the ingestion of toxic substances from pollution and to changes in environmental conditions, such as temperature, moisture, wind and vibration. I could relate to this, as my dysfunctional autonomic nervous system made me sensitive to these things as well.”
To see ourselves in a mirror, and to see others experiencing similar feelings, is incredibly helpful in coming to terms with our illnesses and our new way of being in the world. I think, to some extent, my animal spirit posts have given me something of this. They are vessels for self reflection but they are also companions in facing shared difficulties, alone but together.
““I am going to withdraw from the world; nothing that happens there is any concern of mine.” And the snail went into his house and puttied up the entrance.”
– Hans Christian Anderson
I devoured The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating in much the same way as Bailey’s snail ate it’s way through letters and envelopes. It is a short, small book, filled with poetic observations and for me, is the type of nature writing I aspire to. There is an ordinariness in it. She is not exploring remote, far flung places. She is not at a microscope. She is someone who could easily be me, or you. But through the snail, she found herself a way of coping in a challenging situation.
“In a March 2009 article in the New Yorker, Atul Gawande wrote, “All human beings experience isolation as torture.” Illness isolates; the isolated become invisible; the invisible become forgotten. But the snail… the snail kept my spirit from evaporating.”
By the end of the book, her health has improved but she remains ill, keeping the snails teachings with her; “lots to do at whatever pace I can go. I must remember the snail.”
Climb Mount Fuji
but slowly, slowly
– Kobayashi Issa