An Unlikely Bedside Companion
Bedridden by a mysterious pathogen that makes her too weak even to sit up, Elisabeth Tova Bailey passes her days watching a snail that a friend brought in a pot of violets. As she recovers, she writes “a book-length natural history thank-you letter to the snail.” Following is an excerpt from The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. © 2010 by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.
Every few days I watered the violets from my drinking glass, and the excess water seeped into the dish beneath. This always woke the snail. It would glide to the rim of the pot and look over, slowly waving its tentacles in apparent delight, before making its way down to the dish for a drink. Sometimes it started back up, only to stop at a halfway point and go to sleep. Waking periodically, and without moving from its position, it would stretch its neck all the way down to the water and take a long drink.
A little more dirt was needed around the roots of the violets, which my caregiver procured from the vegetable garden and added to the flowerpot. The snail was not pleased. For the next few days it carefully crept up the side of the pot and directly onto a violet leaf, never touching the garden soil, settling in for the day’s snooze perched high in the crown of the plant. Rather abashed, I asked for more help, and the sandy garden soil was exchanged for humus from the snail’s own woods. Soon the snail was sleeping beneath the violet leaves again in a soft new hollow.
After weeks of around-the-clock companionship, there was no doubt about the relationship: the snail and I were officially cohabiting. I was, I admit, attached. I felt some guilt that it had been taken, unasked, from its natural habitat, yet I was not ready to part with it. It was adding a welcome focus to my life, and I couldn’t think how I would otherwise have passed the hours.
Despite its small size, the snail was a fearless and tireless explorer. Instinctively it knew its limits, how far it could travel during the night and still return home in the morning. On the crate’s dry surface, the pot of violets was an oasis, offering water, food, and shelter. Setting off on an expedition, its tentacles stretched out in anticipation, the snail appeared confident. Watching it glide along was a welcome distraction and provided a sort of meditation; my often frantic and frustrated thoughts would gradually settle down to match its calm, smooth pace. With its mysterious, fluid movement, the snail was the quintessential tai chi master.
Though the bed-and-breakfast arrangement in the flowerpot had worked for a while, I wanted the snail to have a safer and more natural home. There was a barn attached to the studio where I was staying, and in one of its corners my caregiver found a glass aquarium. This was soon converted into a terrarium filled with fresh native plants and other materials from the snail’s own woods. With an old leaf here and a pine needle there, the terrarium looked as though a bit of native forest floor had been lifted up and placed inside. Within moments of moving into this rich kingdom, the snail came partway out of its shell. Its tentacles quivered with interest and it set off to investigate the new terrain. It crawled along the dead log, drank water out of the mussel shell, investigated the mosses, climbed up the terrarium’s glass side, and then chose a dark, private corner and went to sleep.
As my snail watching continued, I wanted to know more about how to care properly for my small companion. My caregiver unearthed a decades-old paperback book titled Odd Pets, by Dorothy Hogner. In addition to providing basic information on snails, Hogner suggested feeding them a diet of mushrooms.
There were some fresh portobellos in the kitchen refrigerator. A single portobello was about fifty times larger than my snail, and so my caregiver cut a generous slice and placed it in the terrarium. The snail loved the mushroom. It was so happy to have a familiar food, after weeks of nothing but wilted flowers, that for several days it slept right next to the huge piece of portobello, waking throughout the day to reach up and nibble before sinking back into a well-fed slumber. Each night a surprisingly large portion of the mushroom would vanish, until, by the end of the week, the very last piece had disappeared.
While the snail and I each had our routines, we also both appreciated adventures. When a visiting friend or relative brought something to add to the terrarium, the snail was always intrigued. Whether it was a half-rotten lichen-covered branch, a piece of birch bark, a clump of moss, or perhaps a leaf of lettuce, the snail received the gift with tentacles aquiver. After conducting a careful and thorough examination, it then tasted anything that might be edible.
Inches from my bed and from each other stood the terrarium and a clock. While life in the terrarium flourished, time ticked away its seconds. But the relationship between time and the snail confused me. The snail would make its way through the terrarium while the hands of the clock hardly moved—so I often thought the snail traveled faster than time. Then, absorbed in snail watching, I’d find that time had flown by, unnoticed. We are all hostages of time. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what time I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose.
As the snail’s world grew more familiar, my own human world became less so; my species was so large, so rushed, and so confusing. I found myself preoccupied with the energy level of my visitors, and I started to observe them in the same detail with which I observed the snail.
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. They were so careless with it. Whereas the energy of my human visitors wore me out, the snail inspired me. Its curiosity and grace pulled me further into its peaceful and solitary world. Watching it go about its life in the small ecosystem of the terrarium put me at ease.
Occasionally, when an urgent need for change—no matter the cost—swept through me, I would slowly roll from my right side over to my left side. This simple act caused my heart to beat wildly and erratically, but the reward was a whole new vista. Nothing, of course, was in reach. I could just see into the corner of the bathroom, where I knew I would find a claw-foot bathtub. Across the room there was a shelf that held many books, their titles of possible interest if only I could decipher them, but the distance was too great. There was a window I could look out if only I could stand. And there was the door to the outside world. I would look at the door until it reminded me of all the places I could not go. Then, exhausted and empty from my audacious adventure, I’d make the slow roll back toward the kingdom of the terrarium and the tiny life it contained.