The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is Elisabeth Tova Bailey's extraordinary account of what she learned from a snail while learning to deal with a chronic, debilitating illness. There are so many lessons in this beautiful little book about how to live life slower and more fully. Here's more from my interview with Elisabeth:
Jennifer Haupt: It's widely accepted that pets are therapeutic during times of physical illness and depression. How was your dog a comfort during your struggles with a chronic debilitating illness? Did you consider the snail a "pet" or something else?
Elisabeth Tova Bailey: I never really considered the snail a "pet." A snail is not domesticated and is very much a wild animal. I liked that it was a wild creature about which I initially knew very little. That's what sparked my curiosity and kept me intrigued. I had no idea what to expect from the tiny snail and so watching it was fascinating.
Given the severe level of my illness, the snail was just the right companion as it needed minimal care. I loved my dog deeply, of course, but I could not walk her and was even too weak to really pat her. I often felt very badly that I couldn't give my dog the kind of life she'd had before my illness. When I was at a better functioning level my dog was a wonderful companion and comfort, but at my most severe level, the snail was the easier companion. Any animal companionship during illness is very helpful as illness can be very isolating. An animal keeps one in touch with another life, gives one something to live for, and nonverbal communication can also be helpful when one is too weak to converse.
JH: How did your relationship with a snail help get you through a difficult time?
ETB: My snail was always at my side and just to have that kind of contact through the days and nights was critical as I was so cut off from my usual life. While I couldn't do the things I wanted to do, I could, by watching the snail, enter into its microcosmic world, and so in that way, I was still able to participate in its microcosmic life. It was also helpful to see an example of a small creature adapt and persevere outside of its usual environment, as living with chronic illness involves a continual adaptation and perseverance.
My own life seemed less dismal when I could look into the terrarium and see that the snail was going about it's day as if everything was just as it should be. The snail brought me hope that I, too, would somehow continue forward in my own life.
JH: Has nature always played a big role in your life?
ETB: The natural world has always brought me solace. I've lived all of my adult life in the country and small rural towns and find that it brings a level of peace to my life I would not experience in a large city. The natural world is an endlessly rich environment and it is always changing. The weather patterns are always in flux, seasonal shifts are occurring, plants and trees are always growing, animals are always moving about. Being able to watch the natural world, even if it's out a window, is stimulating to all the senses and restful to the mind. The natural world is where we came from and the world which sustains us in all ways.
JH: Tell me about the significance of the title. What was it about the sound of the snail eating that was particularly comforting?
ETB: These days humans are in pretty constant motion. We rarely slow down. Illness is often the only thing that brings us to a stop. I could never have spent time watching a snail if I were healthy. It was only because of my illness that I was able to observe a snail. And it is only because I was moving at a pace even slower than a snail, that snail watching was entertaining.
Like many patients with severe chronic illness, I spent a lot of time alone as I couldn't participate much in social life. The room I was living in was very quiet. Even so, I was astonished when I realized I could hear my snail eating dinner. Somehow, hearting that tiny sound was very comforting. To know that the tiny snail got hungry, just as any human or other animal does, and that it was eating, was somehow reassuring-I felt less alone.
JH: How difficult was it to let the snail go?
ETB: Well, I don't want to give away what happens in the book but it was hard to let the snail go. I'd become quite attached to watching its life at my bedside. The snail had been with me for months, though the long days and the even longer nights. However, as happens in life, time eventually brought some changes and it was time for both of us to move on. That didn't make the decision easy, but it was the right decision.
JH: How did your relationship with this snail affect your view of/relationship with nature?
ETB: During the year I observed the snail I was mostly aware of it's companionship and it's amazing abilities and interesting habits. Years later, when I worked on the book, I got to know much more of the details about a snail's life and was even more astonished. It clarified for me that every creature, regardless of size or pace, has a unique set of traits and abilities.
Snails can do many things that humans can not do. I also learned that many pathogens-viruses and bacteria often associated with illnesses-are also involved in speciation. That to some degree pathogens had helped shaped evolution and as a result both snails and humans exist at the present time. Ultimately, examining one very small animal in depth brought me to a better understanding of how we are all kin and how each species has evolved into its current niche. I also came to accept that pathogens, though they sometimes make us very ill, are also part of evolution and the natural world.