Friday, October 14, 2011

Best bedside book: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

Although summer officially ended last month, it hangs on for a little while yet in these golden autumn days. One Indian Summer, in the Vermont forest, my child found a newt red as flame--a long-forgotten moment that returned to mind as I read Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Early on in Bailey's struggle with a debilitating illness, a visiting friend, walking in the woods, sees a small brown snail, picks it up with some wild violets, and presents it to the bedwritten writer. The resulting memoir reminds us of how very much a small but thoughtful gift can mean. The book itself is such a gift to the reader. If you’ve been wanting to slow down and rediscover quiet, illuminated moments in your own life, look no farther than Bailey’s wonderful story about her long, confining illness and the busy, intrepid and, yes, audibly chewing creature that lifted her spirits by sustaining her connection to the forests and fields where she couldn’t wander anymore.

The diverting snail, which could hang upside down from a fern frond and, when Bailey watered the violets on her bedside table,“...would glide to the rim of the pot and look over, slowly waving its tentacles in apparent delight...”, kept her company during a very lonely time when, Bailey writes, “ friends were golden threads randomly appearing in the monotonous fabric of my days.” Although she couldn’t move her body, Bailey’s imagination journeyed far and wide as she studied her snail.

She reads Darwin, who was fascinated by Molluska and the hitchiking propensities that enabled them to be carried by birds or logs across oceans. “Stuck to an autumn leaf, a snail may blow along in a storm, its magic carpet eventually landing in faraway terrain.” She learned, in confirmation of her own observations of her pet, that snails have brains, and romance, too. Gerald Durrell and others watched the mating of snails–some of which, like Cupid, literally shoot a dart into the flesh of a paramour. Bailey contributes to the literature: “Eventually I would learn that I may be the first person to have recorded observations of a snail tending its eggs.”

An illness can change a life for a long time, sometimes forever. For more than two decades, since she collapsed with a high fever on a visit to Switzerland, Bailey has been periodically laid low with a weakened immune system, pain and chronic fatigue. During the year spent with a snail and its progeny, considerable healing began, as so often happens when genuine interest in other beings frees us from feelings of isolation and depression.

Over time, Bailey wrote in an email, she has become sensitized to many synthetic chemicals, such as the pesticides that also harm amphibians and snails, and the phthalates that offgass from polyvinyl (PVC) plastic and have been linked to asthma and hormone disruption. She writes in her email of how chemicals offgassing from a PVC shower curtain produced a reaction--coughing, eye irritation, headaches, and collapse--that led to her hospitalization. Not content with removing her shower curtain, Bailey spoke with her state’s poison control center and, joining the Center for Health, Environment and Justice's campaign, convinced her local stores to stop selling the curtains, which were also treated with a toxic fungicide.

Thinking of other invalids and homebound people, Bailey writes in her book, “I felt a connection to all of them. We, too, were a colony of hermits.” Clearly, she feels and acts on a sense of responsibility to the planet and the rest of us, and it was her generosity of spirit that got me to finally reach for her book, which had received glowing reviews and a recommendation from my beloved aunt in Vermont.

As it happened, I turned to Bailey's book when I was recuperating from a blackout and fall, caused by a sudden mysterious fever, that had severely curtailed my normally active life. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating helped me to recognize the resulting stillness as an opportunity. Bailey's warmth, wit and energy changed my life by reaffirming my connection to what matters most to me--friends, family, the natural world--and reminding me to spend much more time with them. I highly recommend this marvellous book.

You can hear the snail eating, and watch it go with the flow, at