Llewellyn King

The snail that saved a woman

One of my favorite Christmas activities is to enjoy a really good French meal. I start my indulgence with a hearty serving of escargot, defying my cardiologist.

But this year, I have declared a one-man moratorium on the eating of snails. My gluttony has been impaired for this and other visits to Chez Indulgence by a slim but compelling volume that makes you think differently about that humble creature: the woodland snail.

It is also a book for Christmas: a feel-good book about a sick woman and a lowly creature of the forest floor. You never feel sorry for the writer, even in her distress, and you feel joyful about the snail. You bond with it.

The book is The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. It belongs in that category of books that, like tunes, becomes imprinted in your memory. Bailey's book is not a work of fiction, and it is work of wonder.

Bailey, who used to be an outdoors woman and a professional gardener, was felled nearly 20 years ago by one of the least understood but most debilitating of diseases: chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis.

"From where I lay, all life was out of reach," Bailey writes in her book.

Nothing much is known about the disease, which afflicts about 1 million Americans. But there is recent evidence that it may be caused by the retrovirus XMRV.

My own research into CFS and hundreds of e-mails I have received reveal that sufferers have bad years, worse years and years of some improvement. One writer told me, "We are the living dead." Others thought they had recovered, but fell back into the lonely painful abyss.

In Bailey's worst year, a visitor put a woodland snail into a pot of violets and presented it to her. It was a whimsical gesture, but it may have saved her life by giving her an interest beyond dreaming of the life that could no longer be hers. Sometimes she was so ill, Bailey reports, that she could not turn over in her bed, so she watched the snail.

Later, she placed it (they are hermaphrodites) in a better home — a terrarium where it could go about its complicated life, which included audibly chewing squares of paper. She got attached to it and learned about its habits: its use of slime to get around and its ability to fertilize its own eggs and bring forth young — an amazing 118 little snails — in this predator-free space.

As Bailey's health improved, she began to research snails in general and to study the work of the extraordinary naturalists of the 19th century, mostly British, including Charles Darwin. In the book, Bailey quotes some wonderful observations from this rich period for the natural sciences.

Like Bailey, the 19th century naturalists depended more on what they saw in the field rather than study in the laboratory. They found, for example, that even hermaphrodites love to make love; and if one snail gets amorous with another, the proceedings are protracted. Who would have thought?

Bailey does not dwell on her disease, but on the snail. In fact, the nature of the disease is not revealed until the epilogue.

The book is not a lament of life's abounding injustices, nor is it full of humbug about the human spirit. It is an adventurous, fascinating investigation of a snail that comforted inadvertently as it went about its slimy business, habitat attached.

Bailey is a beautiful writer of the simple English sentence and an artful storyteller. This is a book for Christmas because it makes one feel very good. Merry Christmas to all the snails of the earth — people, too.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS.

© 2010 Hearst Newspapers

The snail that saved a woman 12/22/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:43pm]

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