Guest Rant: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating


My friend hugged me, said good-bye, and drove off.

At age thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe, I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms. I had thought I was indestructible. But I wasn’t. If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn’t. Medical specialists at several major clinics couldn’t diagnose the infectious culprit. I was in and out of the hospital for months, and the complications were life threatening. An experimental drug that became available stabilized my condition, though it would be several grueling years to a partial recovery and a return to work. My doctors said the illness was behind me, and I wanted to believe them. I was ecstatic to have most of my life back.

But out of the blue came a series of insidious relapses, and once again, I was bedridden. Further, more sophisticated testing showed that the mitochondria in my cells no longer functioned correctly and there was damage to my autonomic nervous system; all functions not consciously directed, including heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, had gone haywire. The drug that had previously helped now caused dangerous side effects; it would soon be removed from the market.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive. Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness, and intolerable loss.

Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties. It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour, yet days slipped silently past. 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.

I had been moved to a studio apartment where I could receive the care I needed. My own farmhouse, some fifty miles away, was closed up. I did not know if or when I’d ever make it home again. For now, my only way back was to close my eyes and remember. I could see the early spring there, the purple field violets — like those at my bedside — running rampant through the yard. And the fragrant small pink violets that I had planted in the little woodland garden to the north of my house — they, too, would be in bloom. Though not usually hardy this far north, somehow they survived. In my mind I could smell their sweetness.

Before my illness, my dog, Brandy, and I had often wandered the acres of forest that stretched beyond the house to a hidden, mountain-fed brook. The brook’s song of weather and season followed us as we crisscrossed its channel over partially submerged boulders. On the trail home, in the boggiest of spots, perched on tiny islands of root and moss, I found diminutive wild white violets, their throats faintly striped with purple.

These field violets in the pot at my bedside were fresh and full of life, unlike the usual cut flowers brought by other friends. Those lasted just a few days, leaving murky, odoriferous vase water. In my twenties I had earned my living as a gardener, so I was glad to have this bit of garden right by my bed. I could even water the violets with my drinking glass.

But what about this snail? What would I do with it? As tiny as it was, it had been going about its day when it was picked up. What right did my friend and I have to disrupt its life? Though I couldn’t imagine what kind of life a snail might lead.

I didn’t remember ever having noticed any snails on my countless hikes in the woods. Perhaps, I thought, looking at the nondescript brown creature, it was precisely because they were so inconspicuous. For the rest of the day the snail stayed inside its shell, and I was too worn out from my friend’s visit to give it another thought.


  1. Something about illness and the effect on the mind, can be so demoralizing. It takes such effort to view limitations as boundaries instead, creating an area of our own making. Just this short excerpt shows Ms. Bailey’s imaginative mind, pulling her love of nature inside, making that room a bit of woods. Thanks for putting this up; I’m going to look for the book.

  2. This reminds me so much of my dad and his relationship with a tiny spider in his bathtub. Dad was dying of cancer, refused treatment, and insisted on staying in his house to the end. As he began to lose the ability to walk or get out of the house he started relationships with some of his fellow house creatures, including the bathtub spider. He treated it like a pet, or like a housemate. I’m convinced that the spider taught him more about mortality than any of the earnest talks he got from the hospice clergypeople. It was sweet. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. What an interesting concept – a snail as a pet when you usually view snails as enemies. I wonder how my reactions would differ from Elisabeth’s?

  4. I was so disappointed when the extract ended. And then …??

    As I child I kept snails as pets – I collected them from the garden and kept them in a huge container full of plants to provide them with food. Did they suffer in captivity? They always seemed quite content, and lived and bred happily.

    To this day I couldn’t kill a snail. My London garden is full of them and they destroy everything. But I collect them up, pop them in a bucket and head for the middle of our local nature reserve park, where I release them. I suspect I’m known locally as the mad snail lady.

    It extends to slugs too. I’m currently recovering from a really nasty injury to my leg a month ago. I fell off my bike onto some really sharp stones. I’d swerved to avoid a slug which was crossing the path …

  5. Thanks Elisabeth. Yeah, I was sad when this excerpt ended, too. Come on, a little more…. I’ll go check this out. I’m presuming the snail makes for one heckuva symbol to carry, what I assume is, the entire book. Algonquin will also publish my memoir some day, they just don’t know it.

  6. Based on this tiny nibble, I’d have to say that I can imagine digesting this book in one intemperate gulp. It gives me every indication of being the kind of story one can become totally lost in. When I was little, I would get completely absorbed in something I was reading – to the point that I’d suddenly snap to, with my mother standing literally beside me, screaming at me that dinner was ready! I think Ms. Bailey’s book has the potential to do that to me. I miss my mom dearly, but in this respect at least, it’s a good thing she’s shuffled off this mortal coil……..

  7. Oh my…This is such a poignant look at what illness takes and life gives back. Your book sounds like just a lovely read and I look forward to it. Best wishes to you on both your book and your health~

  8. Three slugs join us each evening, and slide along the track of our sliding door to the terrace, while my husband and I eat dinner. I miss them when the door is closed, as the weather turns cooler.

    Thank you for the excerpt, I look forward to reading more.

  9. Oh, I so want to read this book – thank you for the excerpt ! I can see the snail even now as a symbol of loss and hope. Can’t wait to read the reamining text. I fear I will have a difficult time dispatching my garden snails in the usual manner. Perhaps I’ll have to start a snail garden …

  10. I want this book. Pick me. It will go right next to Butterfly Cooing Like a Dove. Yes, I promise. Right after I read it. WHO, I ask you WHO? thinks up a title like this? I am crazy mad for it.

  11. Wow, this book sounds incredible! We few who are indelibly connected to nature can relish even a tiny manifestation of it such as this snail and violets. I can’t wait to read more!

  12. I regretfully don’t devote the time to read many new books but something compelled me to read this excerpt. I’m glad I did. My little niece had a genetic disorder that affected her mitochondria so I perked up even more when I read this excerpt. So many intriguing concepts… I can’t wait to read the rest.

  13. Oh, I can so imagine it! The memory of the fragrance of the violets, and that snail for company. Yes, please, send me the book and I’ll read it to my banana slug! Well, OK, how about I quote a few lines from it next time I see a banana slug out on a hike. They are amongst my favorite creatures.

  14. Wonderful title and even more wonderful excerpt.

    Pick me! Pick me! And I’ll scrape up the Sluggo that I just poured around my fence perimeter this afternoon …

  15. I can imagine the slow demise of the violet as the snail munches away, leaf by leaf, to prolong his own survival inside the house. Surely Elisabeth will feel no small amount of dismay as her beautiful little violet disappears. Yet, the snail, and the person, will have much in common by the end of the book. Perhaps this will be our generation’s “Gifts From the Sea”.

  16. Like everyone else who read the excerpt, I am smitten. I hope this book does very well in its sales. We need more books like this. Thank you.

  17. The last few years, I’ve slowly watched my parents’ health decline. This excerpt touched a cord in me, reminding me how time slows nearly to a stop, yet keeps moving as the author says, during those crisis times. At those times, the world seems to shrink exponentially, so that only the events surrounding that loved one’s bedside are meaningful. All else sinks into irrelevance.

    I would love to receive the free copy of this book, but I think it SHOULD go to Pam J., whose anecdote about her father and the spider is as moving, I think, as the book excerpt.

  18. Wow. I want this book. Fine, lyrical writing. I understand how the mind surges forward during illness, when the body is at a standstill, or at best, moving very slowly — like a snail, perhaps. And we have to hold on to what we can of what we value, even if it’s only violets in a pot, rather than our glorious home field, or the ability to care for another creature, even if it’s only a low-maintenance gastropod.

  19. Every time a door closes, another one opens. The health issue has made the writer slow down and look around, which is the opposite of our blackberry world of today where the real world doesn’t even exist.

  20. Thank you for the excerpt! I heard about this book on NPR, and it caught my interest then. Now I can’t wait to go out and get a copy!

  21. I agree with the Potato Queen, it should go to Pam J. I was very disappointed when the excerpt ended. I can’t wait to read the rest.

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