Ever since I read Laura Hellenbrand’s best-selling Unbroken in 2010 and then an account of the horrific and confining illness which she was suffering with at the same time (and had been while researching and writing her previous masterpiece, Seabiscuit as well,) I began studying whatever I could find dealing with a little-known disorder unfortunately nick-named Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or CFS for short; an invented label which tends to understate one of the most terrible human afflictions to befall modern humankind.
At about the same time I received a phone call while preparing to go on air with my weekly radio talk-show from a male caller accessed through an obvious third-party care-giver. After telling me that for one hour each week I was his “whole world” he explained that he was blind, suffered from a terrible illness and existed alone in a small dark room. I was touched, and after doing my best to deal with his queries, I began to unravel the strained voice and what it hadn’t “told” me in so many words. The more I learned about myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) the more I was haunted by the recognition of the kind of hopelessness I had heard that day.
Elizabeth Tova Bailey a hard-working professional gardener in Maine went on a short well-earned vacation to Europe where she encountered a mysterious and invisible pathogen that struck her down, leaving her totally devitalized and bedridden, unable even to sign her own name to a document. At the age of 34 she leaves her beloved Maine home and dog Brandy for a room in a convalescent studio where she lacks even the sight of the outdoors from a window she can’t raise her head to look out of.
A friend coming to visit her digs a violet plant from her lawn to fit in the earthen pot she carries; then spotting a snail on the walkway, she picks it up on an impulse and places it under one leaf of the plant before presenting it to Elizabeth and placing it beside the bed which is now her “home”. Neither of them – least of all the benighted Bailey -- could have imagined that this garden mollusk might change and enlarge a damaged life and lead to the publication of an award-winning and inspiring book with the elegantly delightful title The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.
With nothing better to do Elizabeth begins watching her be-shelled neighbor, noting the daily routine of drinking drops of water from the leaves, wandering, exploring and sleeping. She realizes that this tiny animal is weighing options and making decisions. Each morning she notices tiny square holes in letters and papers left nearby and realizes her neighbor is finding a needed food source. After this she begins arranging for a small cache of mature mushroom pieces to be available where the snail will find
Noting their friend’s growing interest in her “accidental” room-mate, visitors present her with the gift of a glass terrarium fitted out with a carpet of neighborhood woodland vegetation and maturing material. Daily observations reveal more and more about the secret life of a forest snail from the shiny silvery trails left behind by the slippery slime excreted as a natural travel lubricant by snails and slugs whose tender “feet” would otherwise be damaged by the slightest movement, to an ability to sleep for extended periods of time depending on food, temperature and environmental considerations.
For more than a year Bailey watches the snail’s life, literally listening to it eating its meals, all the time gathering strength and an appreciation for life no medical treatment or magical medication could have prescribed. The healing process carried her through years of time; years that would otherwise have been a torture of brutal aloneness.
The life of even the most fortunate CFS victim has been described as a” life in limbo which goes by with nothing in it.[and] You don’t get a chance to put anything in it. It’s just empty time.”
For Elizabeth Tova Bailey the companionship of a tiny creature which has been present on earth since before even the dinosaurs reconnected her with a love for earth and its riches, in the process gifting us with a small book which for me has been the greatest written treasure of the past year.