Not long after I wrote an existentially hued children’s book about a snail, a friend sent me Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s slender, splendid memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (public library) — the record of an uncommon experiment in learning that the smaller the aperture of attention, the more wonder rushes in.
At thirty-four, while traveling through Europe, Bailey was felled by severe neurological symptoms — the result of a mysterious viral or bacterial invasion that savaged her mitochondria, vanquishing youth’s sense of invincibility, subverting the common faith in modern medicine: In and out of hospitals as treatment after treatment failed to help, she was eventually left pinned to her bed at home, the distance to the bookshelf across the room an expedition demanding a whole day’s energies. She reflects:
Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties.
She slips into the time-warp of illness — the way it has of making an eternity of a single moment while letting entire days vanish. Millennia after Seneca contemplated the balance of time spent, saved, and wasted and a decade before Zadie Smith considered the pandemic as a lens on time, Bailey observes:
Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.
And then the blur is suddenly interrupted by a peculiar gift: One day, a friend brings her a pot of violets from the nearby forest, housing a single Neohelix albolabris — a common woodland snail.
At first indignant about what she could possibly do with a bivalve pet when she can hardly sit up, Bailey grows quickly fascinated by the creature’s feeding habits, its sleep rhythms, its gentle insistence on survival. She decides to give it a proper home. In a dusty corner of the barn next to the studio where she is bedridden, her caretaker finds a discarded glass aquarium that soon becomes a lavish terrarium filled with native plants from the snail’s woodland home.
Having once made a living as a professional gardener, Bailey takes vivifying delight in populating the tiny botanical garden, listing out plants she doesn’t know whether she will ever again see in the wild:
Goldthread — aptly named for its colorful roots — holding its trio of delicate, paw-shaped leaves high on a thin stem; partridgeberry, with its round, dark green leaves and its small, bright red berries, which lasted for months; the larger, waxy leaves of checkerberry; many kinds of moss; small polypody ferns; a tiny spruce tree; a rotting birch log; and a piece of old bark encrusted with multicolored lichen.
Captive in her bedroom, she comes to see the snail’s home as a microcosm of existence — its terrarium an entire world, its miniature movements an ongoing odyssey, emanating what the great naturalist Henry Beston celebrated as the sacredness of smallness. In paying such tender and total attention to the snail’s life, she learns to pay attention to life itself at the focal point of the living moment, which is the only share of eternity we have. She reflects:
Survival often depends on a specific focus: a relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility. Or something more ephemeral: the way the sun passes through the hard, seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket, or how the wind, invisible but for its wake, is so loud one can hear it through the insulated walls of a house.
Looking in on the snail’s miniature universe, she learns to look out — out of the human-sized terrarium of her bedroom, out of the painful circumstance of her illness, out of the limiting if-only mind that tells us we need certain conditions in order to feel the majesty and mystery of life; she learns that even the smallest opening is enough for beauty and wonder to pour in, and that we make the opening with the sharpness of our attention — for attention is how we render reality what it is.
With an eye to her widened lens of wonder, she writes:
As I window-watched, I observed the comings and goings of my neighbors; they, too, were part of the rhythm of my familiar rural landscape. They would depart for work or errands and later return, walk their dogs, cut firewood, and check their roadside mailboxes. As twilight deepened, the low dart of a nighthawk over the field would catch my eye. Darkness brought the sparking of secret codes from the mate-seeking fireflies. Then, black on black, the swift shapes of bats would swoop for late-night morsels, and the hooting of owls would come softly, softly, from the woods — until all was quiet and still beneath the ancient brightness of distant stars and the shape-shifting moon.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a benediction of a book in its entirety — the kind rapturous to read, difficult to write about. Couple it with Virginia Woolf on illness as a portal to self-understanding, then revisit Helen Macdonald’s stunning memoir of what a hawk taught her about life.