A Beautiful Voice:
Elisabeth Tova Bailey's
By Craig Maupin at www.cfidsreport.com
"Childhood pneumonia, college mononucleosis --those were nothing compared to this... I spiral into a deep darkness... I cannot come back up; I cannot reach my body". With those words, and an experience familiar to those who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating begins.
Bailey's poetic prose is more than an account of illness, it is also the remarkable natural history of a individual snail. It is an account of change, of survival, and of adaptation. When a friend brings her a snail from the woodlands nearby, the small gift opens a novel world -- and a mysterious life -- that before went unnoticed. Confined to her bed, Bailey observes the snail as it explores, seeks shelter, gives birth, and relates to its miniature world. Within its flower pot or terrarium, the snail becomes a companion and a catalyst for new questions and exploration.
The author compiles a rich body of knowledge about snails, blending scientific knowledge with literary accounts. The snail's world, though often unnoticed, is rich and fascinating. For instance, a snail's brain has between 50,000 and 100,000 giant neurons. Snails find their way through their world much like Helen Keller, relying on smell and touch. They use their slime as a Teflon highway, a surface to enable effortless and silent locomotion. The snail's world, though foreign, is amazingly intricate and unique.
After experiencing years of full life of working, gardening, sailing, and hiking, the author's new life with chronic fatigue syndrome was as undesired as it was foreign. She describes life with CFS vividly. Orthostatic intolerance limits movement and isolates: "Offices, stores, galleries, libraries and movie theaters are not made for horizontal people". Post-exertional costs are incurred for routine activities once taken for granted. She writes that "holding and reading a book for any length of time involved levels of strength and concentration that were beyond me".
Realizing her snail is similarly confined, the author takes interest in the environment that she provides for it. A woodland terrarium is prepared for the snail, a place for the snail to explore and live comfortably. Yet, a reader wonders: Is a bed, a table, some white walls, and a water pitcher a stimulating environment for a human? The author herself speaks of being "trapped inside a stark, white box", unable to fully enjoy a window, hear pleasing sounds, or enjoy sunlight. Just as the snail requires stimulation in its environment, so, too, does she.
Before she was ill, Bailey was not very aware of what a snail's world was like; it seemed small and inconsequential. CFS is equally inconspicuous to the healthy public. The author recalls those who found her "disappearance from work and social circles inexplicable." Like snails in the woodlands, she also becomes invisible: "I was simply homebound, like a snail pulled into its shell. But being homebound in the human world is a sort of vanishing."
Snails lack many senses. Their vision is poor, and they cannot hear. As if to make up for the missing senses, snails develop other senses, such as an acute sense of smell. As CFS creates severe physical and mental exhaustion, the mind seeks imagination and contemplation. The author remarks, "When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails".
The mind creates new trails as well. As authentic proof of those trails, chronic fatigue syndrome has produced its share of skilled authors. Hillary Johnson's Osler's Web and Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit are substantiation of this lineage of powerful pens. In my home, both these books sit on a bookshelf. When I see these books, I am reminded of courage, of survival, and of the human spirit. Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating now rests beside their works, in a growing corner -- my a Hall of Fame of CFS authors.
Bailey speaks of survival as spurred by a "specific focus.. a hope balanced on the edge of possibility". Possibility and hope are fuels that help those with chronic fatigue syndrome survive. Possibility and hope also conspire to create powerful prose. And Elisabeth Tova Bailey's book is powerful prose, a masterpiece of natural history that cuts through disease, environmental concerns, and sociological questions to find a uniquely beautiful voice.
Sound of a Wild Snail Eating can be purchased from Amazon.com.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey's website is www.elisabethtovabailey.net.
The author and Algonquin Publishers will donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book to The Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno NV.