Cover: Woman and Snow Bird by Pitaloosie Saila. Courtesy: Kinngait, Dorset Fine Arts
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Andrew Cooper savours the heart-warming story of an unlikely companionship. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Green Books, 2010. ISBN: 9781900322911
One moment Elisabeth was enjoying the invigorating, dramatic beauty of an alpine village; the next, she was struck down by a mystery virus. Hardly able to move, and in a foreign land, most of us would just want to go home.
Critically ill and incapacitated, Elisabeth became keenly aware of the seriousness and consequences of her condition but was helpless to respond. Unsurprisingly, back from hospital in her own bed, she plunged further from a bustling vibrant world into a deep, dark, desperately lonely place.
Modern medicine seemed powerless to rescue her from this terrifying ordeal. Incapable of doing anything, she was forced to lie still. Even turning in bed required supreme effort, leaving her physically exhausted and mentally drained. Yet out of this terrible predicament there emerged a remarkable story of hope, a journey of discovery and delight, illuminating a world that most of us walk over without a thought.
Acting on impulse, a friend introduced her to an unlikely companion, one with some very strange habits. Like her, the snail had been uprooted from its home and transported to alien territory. They shared something in common.
Disorientated by fitful sleep, Elisabeth would wake gradually each morning, before the sharpness of day and the realisation of her situation brought her mind back into sharp focus. While the rest of the world hurried past – friends and family busying themselves – nothing in her studio seemed to have changed. Yet the feelings of loneliness in the small hours and sense of utter desperation started to fade.
Looking every morning for the snail, reliving the night’s nocturnal entertainment, it was comforting to find the little creature now quietly asleep in a flower-pot or snuggled under a fern by her bed. She was after all not entirely alone. Then something extraordinary happened. Her new friend started to lead her along a path of revelation, and even recovery, very, very slowly. (Snails do nothing at speed.)
The experience of living in such intimacy with a ponderous tiny life form, watching every move, studying its weird private life, stirred a primeval passion that has helped drive the success of our species – curiosity. When Elisabeth was eventually capable, although not entirely cured, reading and research opened a door into a different dimension: the wonderful world of the snail.
It is surprising to learn which people in history mention them, the anecdotes and stories they tell, the legends and superstitions, and the facts distilled from hours of meticulous observation. On her journey Elisabeth had become an expert on her gastropod friend. Yet every detail of their slippery lives raises more questions. How do they communicate? Can they feel pain and pleasure? They certainly seem to enjoy eating. But far more than that, not only did the snail help her come to terms with her condition, but it also helped a lost, gravely ill soul return from a living hell, and an author emerge partially from her shell.
This beautifully written story is a moving and amusing tribute to the connection we all need with Nature, or lose at our peril. After reading this book I will never again be able to look a snail in its tentacle and think of it as a mere mollusc. We discover that the snail lives a strange, unhurried existence, rasping a living, keenly aware of its surroundings and unerringly able to return home whenever it feels the urge. This is an animal finely tuned to its own leisurely pace of life, one that has already survived far longer on Earth than any human.
If evidence were needed of the healing and enriching power of the natural world, Elisabeth Bailey’s passionate, heart-warming and illuminating little book is definitive proof. While convalescing and confined to bed, her intimate observations and empathy with a humble woodland creature reveal her own very personal journey of survival. How a snail became her constant companion, entertainer and even mentor is an extraordinary insight to the potential of the human mind. This is a book to be enjoyed at the pace of a snail, slowly savouring every detail, letting the story slide seamlessly to its uplifting end.