Elisabeth Tova Bailey was on holiday in the Alps when she was felled by a virulent strain of flu. She got back home, collapsed, was hospitalised, given drugs that were later withdrawn and – in short – succumbed to a weakness that felt like paralysis. Her autonomic nervous system was damaged: any bodily function not consciously directed, such as heart rate, blood pressure and digestion, went haywire.
“I had thought I was indestructible,” she says, looking back over two decades of illness. “But I wasn’t. I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn’t.
“There were times when I wished my viral invader had claimed me completely. How much better to live an exuberant life and then leave as one exits a party, simply opening a door and stepping out. Instead the virus took me to the edge of life and left me trapped in its shadow.”
If she managed to overcome that despair, it’s partly because, one day in early spring, a friend came to visit with a terracotta pot of field violets that also contained a live snail, collected during a walk in the woods. “I thought you might enjoy it,” the friend said.
Bailey couldn’t understand (“enjoy it?”) and mildly resented the responsibility. When the snail glided down the side of the pot she was mesmerised, but wondered if she would ever see it again. The next morning she found it back in the pot, under a leaf, curled into its shell.
Over the following days the snail disregarded the violets but ate small corners of Bailey’s correspondence, labels on medicine bottles and dead flowers. One evening Bailey realised she could hear it eating. “The tiny, intimate sound gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.”
That moment provides the title to Bailey’s charming and absorbing memoir, The Sound Of A Wild Snail Eating, which has echoes Charlotte’s Web and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and has won praise from general readers and biologists alike. Even the medical establishment has seized on it, as confirmation that exposing patients to even the smallest bit of “nature” can bring benefits.
An American who once lived in Southampton, and sailed and bicycled around England and Wales, Bailey worked as a gardener and a writer of essays and fiction before she was struck down. She had a farmhouse, and ordinary pets including dogs and cats. The illness changed everything. She was moved into an apartment where she could be visited more easily. Bedridden herself, she found visitors exhausting.
“The random way my friends moved around the room astonished me. It was as if they didn’t know what to do with their energy. I did always want friends to visit but I always knew that I would get sicker while they were there.”
By comparison, the snail was a perfect companion. It moved, she says, like a tai chi master. “Anyone in my situation – anyone that immobile – would watch any creature around them and get interested. Not everyone agrees with me about that. But very few have been in that position.”
The more she watched, the more she became absorbed in the differences between her and the snail.
Borrowing vast biological tomes on molluscs from the library, she discovered that her snail had 2,640 teeth and constantly replaced them. It relied on three senses: smell, taste and touch, using two pairs of tentacles that could move independently. It could store a 12th of its weight in water and carry 51 times its body weight across a table. It was a hermaphrodite that could self-fertilise if no mate appeared. If conditions are unfavourable, it could go dormant for years. For that last quality in particular, Bailey envied it.
But there were also similarities. Both Bailey and the snail lived in altered landscapes not of their choosing: “I figured we shared a sense of loss and displacement,” she says. They were also both permanently home-bound.
“Three and a half billion years ago,” Bailey says, “we shared a common ancestor” – a simple worm that gradually evolved into entirely different creatures. Geneticists teach that we have genes that for unknown reasons have been “turned off”. So perhaps one day, Bailey conjectures, “scientists will figure out how to flip these switches and we’ll each be able to choose other interesting animal traits: a tail, striped fur, wings or even gastropod tentacles.”
One day, Bailey asked a friend to top up the earth in the pot, but the snail shunned the new soil. So she commissioned a terrarium – a glass aquarium filled with soil from the snail’s wood, as well as ferns and moss and rotting sticks. The snail was much happier. Bailey realised that snails possess memory, and can learn from experience – in short, they think.
Eventually she would be perhaps the first person ever to witness a snail tending its own eggs – but as her health gradually improved she found that watching a snail ceased to be relaxing and started to require patience. She returned to her own home, and the snail was released back into its woods.
Friends encouraged her to write about her observation and by doing so she began to understand what the snail had done for her. “I honestly don’t think I would have made it [without the snail]. Watching another creature go about its life somehow gave me purpose too. something in my life mattered, so I kept on.
“If you have a dog, people will come up and say hello. People are just drawn to animals. Animals are soothing. The relationship with animals doesn’t have the same complications involved in verbal relations with humans.
“At a better level of health I might have been more comfortable with a cat, and better still perhaps with a dog. But I had never put into words what the snail meant to me.
Since the book was published she’s been delighted by the response from the medical establishment. “I had an email from a nurse recently. She was ecstatic because what is important is to keep the patient as happy and interested in life as possible. She was thrilled that the first quote in the book is from Florence Nightingale: ‘A small pet is an excellent companion.’”
A medical school in the US is using the book to teach how important it is to have some part of the natural world around people who are ill. “A lot of hospitals have a pet therapy programme in place, with a well trained dog visiting patients. But many hospitals are so cut off. Your senses are deprived and it’s boring and hard to be positive.”
Bailey quotes a study which found that patients with a view of a natural setting had shorter post operative stays and far fewer negative comments in the nurses’ notebooks. The patients without a view needed more injections with painkillers.
Two decades on, Bailey remains unwell. “I have had years that have been really bad, but I’m not as severe now as I was then. I do have to lie down a lot, frequently, throughout the day. Most telephone calls I take lying down. I wrote on the computer, which involved sitting up – very. very slowly. It’s only 150 pages long but it took four years to write. I got impatient, thought I wouldn’t finish it, but I reminded myself that it was appropriate to go slowly, like a snail. So, psychologically, the snail helped me again.”