My slow route to recovery: A writer reveals her unlikely convalescent-home companion. Updated: 20:00 GMT, 20 November 2010. When author Elisabeth Tova Bailey was struck down with a rare autoimmune disease after a dose of flu, she was totally immobilised and had to move into a convalescent home.
Then, when a friend brought in a snail from the garden and put it in a plant pot by her bed, her world view changed – and her health improved little by little. 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.
The snail was partly out of its shell. I watched as it moved slowly down the side of the flowerpot. As it glided along, it gently waved the tentacles on its head.
Its leisurely pace was mesmerising. Watching it was a welcome distraction: my often frantic and frustrated thoughts would gradually settle down to match its calm, smooth pace. I wondered if it would wander off during the night.
Perhaps I’d never see it again. But when I woke up the next morning, the snail was back up in the flowerpot, tucked into its shell, asleep. My healthy life had been full of activity. Now, getting up to get something, anything – that alone would be an accomplishment. From where I lay, all of life was out of reach.
On the second morning of the snail’s stay I found a tiny square hole in a scrap of paper beside my bed. As each successive morning arrived, so did more holes. It dawned on me that perhaps the snail needed some real food.
A few long-gone flowers were in a vase by my bed. That evening I put some of the withered blossoms in the dish beneath the pot of violets. The snail was awake. It made its way down the side of the pot, investigated the offering with great interest, and began to eat one of the blossoms. A petal started to disappear at a barely discernible rate. I listened carefully.
I could hear it eating. The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously.
I watched transfixed, as over the course of an hour the snail meticulously ate an entire purple petal for dinner. The tiny, intimate sound of a snail’s eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space. For several weeks the snail lived in the flowerpot just inches from my bed, sleeping by day and exploring by night. Every few days I watered the violets from my drinking glass and the excess 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 for a drink.
By day the strangeness of my situation was sharpest: I was bed-bound at a time when my friends and peers were moving forward in their careers and raising families. Yet the snail’s daytime sleeping habits gave me a fresh perspective; I was not the only one resting away the days. When healthy people take to their beds, they sink deeply into a privileged sleep. But with my illness, sleep was diaphanous and often nonexistent. The snail came to my rescue.
As the world fell into sleep without me, the snail awoke, as if this darkest of times were indeed the best of times in which to live. After weeks of round-the-clock companionship, there was no doubt: the snail and I were officially cohabiting. I was, I admit, attached.
It was adding a welcome focus to my life, and I couldn’t think how I would otherwise have passed the hours. I wanted the snail to have a safer and more natural home. My carer found an empty glass aquarium. This was soon converted into a roomy terrarium filled with fresh native plants, and a mussel shell, with its silvery inside, now served as a basin for fresh drinking water. The moist, lush vibrancy of the plants reminded me of woods after a rainstorm. It was a world fit for a snail, and a welcome sight for my own eyes as well.
Within moments of moving into this rich kingdom, the snail came partway out of its shell. Its tentacles quivered 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. Its curiosity and grace pulled me further into its peaceful and solitary world. Though holding and reading a book for any length of time involved levels of strength and concentration that were beyond me, watching the snail was completely relaxing.
I observed without thinking, looking into the terrarium simply to feel connected to another creature; another life was being lived just a few inches away. The creature seemed to defy physics. It moved over the very tips of mosses without bending them, and it could travel straight up the stem of a fern and then continue upside down along the frond’s underside.
Its tiny weight caused the fern to bend into an arc, yet the snail was unfazed. I was fond of the elegant way the snail waved its tentacles as it moved serenely along.
Several times I was lucky enough to see it grooming; it arched its neck over the curved edge of its own shell and cleaned the rim carefully with its own mouth. I combed through scientific gastropod literature, eager to know more about my companion. I learned that snails are extremely sensitive to the ingestion of toxic substances from pollution and to changes in environmental conditions such as temperature, moisture, wind and vibration. I could relate to this as my dysfunctional nervous system made me sensitive to these things as well. While we humans have five senses, a snail relies on just three: smell, taste and touch, with smell being the most critical. So critical are its tentacles – which hold smell and taste receptors – to a snail’s survival that if injured they can re-grow them, as a starfish can an arm. 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 levels of my visitors. They were so careless with them.
There were spontaneous gestures of their arms, the toss of a head as if it were nothing at all. Whereas the energy of my visitors wore me out, the snail inspired me.
Its curiosity and grace pulled me further into its peaceful and solitary world. Everything about a snail is cryptic, and my own life, I realised, was becoming just as cryptic. From the severe onset of my illness and through its innumerable relapses, my place in the world has been documented more by my absence than by my presence. While close friends understood, those who didn’t know me well found my disappearance from work and social circles inexplicable. Yet I hadn’t truly vanished; I was simply homebound, like a snail pulled into its shell.
One morning I looked into the terrarium and was surprised to see a cluster of tiny eggs. They were on the surface of the soil, just under the edge of the birch log, and were the colour and size of pearl tapioca. I watched with interest as the snail visited the egg site every few days to tend them. I never saw them hatch. I noticed that some of the eggs had disappeared and when I looked closer I saw a few tiny snails moving around; if they hadn’t been moving, I wouldn’t have detected them.
The number of hatchlings increased as the weeks passed and I realised that additional clutches of eggs must have been laid. Given its solitary nature, I wondered how my snail was coping with a population explosion of its own creation. In the wild nearly half an egg clutch is lost to weather, predators, or hungry first-hatched siblings, but in the terrarium the outcome was more successful.
While watching my solitary snail had been peaceful and calming, watching a plethora of its young in simultaneous motion was hypnotic. I had to admit that I was just a bit overwhelmed. Over several months, there was a gradual improvement in my condition – not so noticeable day to day or even week to week, but I could now sit in a chair for a few minutes a couple of times a day.
I wanted to try going home. I decided to leave the original snail and one of its offspring with my carer. Several friends, intrigued by my enthusiastic ‘snail reports’, adopted a few of the offspring. The rest of the numerous progeny were released into the wild where their parent snail had been found.
I missed the companionship of my snail when I got home but the time came when my carer decided to return it to the wild. After its sheltered life in the terrarium, the snail would have to readjust to the challenges of dangerous predators and unpredictable weather. I wished I could attend the snail’s release but now I was home I was too far away. We had been fellow captives, but now we had both returned to our natural habitats.
Spring turned to summer and I could occasionally now manage to walk a short distance. My snail had been the best of companions; it never asked me questions, nor did it have expectations I couldn’t fulfil.
I had watched it adapt to changed circumstances and persevere. The snail had been a true mentor, leading me through a dark time into a world beyond that of my own species.
Its tiny existence had sustained me. Late one night I wrote in my journal: ‘A last look at the stars and then to sleep. Lots to do at whatever pace I can go. I must remember the snail.
Always remember the snail. This is an edited extract from The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey published by Green Books at £12. 95. To order a copy for £9. 95 with free p&p, contact the YOU Bookshop on 0845 155 0711, you-bookshop.