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Posted At : 8:09 AM | Posted By : Alesha
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Elisabeth Tova Bailey spent nearly two decades battling a mysterious disease, during which she was mostly confined to her bed. A kind friend deposited a small snail in a flowerpot beside Elisabeth's bed and over the first year of illness she gained strength and inspiration from a creature most people squash or ignore. This book has become a source of wonder and comfort for people across the globe. Here, Elisabeth speaks to gr about her snail.
When did you begin writing about your experience with the snail?
Never did I imagine that I would write a book of natural history about an individual snail. I wrote poetry in college and then short stories. I thought nonfiction was dull, a lower and less creative art form than fiction. But I’d had this very interesting experience with a snail and it haunted me, in a good way. The snail had been my bedside companion for months, and my relationship with it seemed entirely personal; it would have felt impossible to put the experience into words at that point even if I’d wanted to. I did scrawl a few notes at the time and then wrote up some observations for my friends, but I needed both time and perspective before I was ready to think about writing more. And when I started into the research, I had no idea how it would develop or if I’d find enough material. It was a very organic process.
Did you have an aim in sharing your encounter with an audience?
I wanted to write a biographical thank-you to the snail that got me through a rough year. As my research proceeded and the snail science proved intriguing, I became fascinated with how even the tiniest of creatures lives a rich life and I wanted my readers to understand that as well. I also hoped the book would find an audience in the patient world, but without losing a universal readership. That was a delicate goal as healthy people rarely want to read about illness so this is another reason why the natural history component was critical. I wanted to share my experience in case it would be helpful to others facing challenges.
Which moment stands out in your companionship with the snail?
There were may different moments that stand out but I think it was that first discovery of the snail as an interesting individual creature that I am still most drawn to. The way it entered my life unexpectedly and how it captured my attention by just going about its life. Watching it head off on its nightly adventurous, and seeing it return home was just so endearing. Like any new relationship there was that mystery and enjoyment as you get to know another being. And the more I observed, the deeper the bond became.
Have you since kept any more companion snails?
I have kept a snail again for just a week or so, a couple of times, in order to get film footage for various purposes, for the illustrator, and also to put together the little film on my author website. I wanted readers to see how peaceful it is to watch a snail glide slowly along. But I would no longer keep a snail, or any wild creature, outside of its natural habitat for a length of time again. Snails are not domesticated pets and knowing now as much as I do, I feel it is best not to remove animals from their native habitat. When possible, I like to live with at least one pet as it keeps me more aware of other ways of being. I particularly like to observe the interactions between cats and dogs that get along—I always find that a touching interspecies relationship.
Do you ever reminisce about your time with the Snail and wish to go back?
I do sometimes miss my snail. But I spent so much time snail watching that year that those memories are still with me and the book is keeping me very connected to those memories too, so it feels like the snail is still with me in spirit.
Because of my illness, the book writing process was particularly slow. Writing a book even under the best of circumstances is always an endless challenge of creative decision making. To write a book under the duress of illness is even tougher. But whenever I got discouraged at how slowly the book moved forward, I’d think of the snail’s ability to carry on. So I’d say the snail really mentored me through the process and gave me faith that no matter how long it took, eventually I would get the book finished.
What changes has your acquaintanceship with the Snail brought about in your life?
My respect for other species is greatly increased and I am more aware of how human centric my own species is. The research for the book made me realize once again both how fragile our planet is—99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct, yet also how tough and adaptable species are—gastropods have evolved over so many millions of years and successfully colonized nearly the whole world.
I learned so much researching and writing the book, not just about gastropods but also about the challenge of book writing. So the snail has enriched my life in countless ways. As the book makes its way around the world, that acquaintanceship continues to stretch me as a writer and a person. Given the moving letters I receive from readers, the snail’s influence is now moving well beyond my own life to touch the lives of thousands of others.
Has understanding your snail changed your philosophy of life?
I wouldn’t say it has changed my philosophy of life but that it has deepened it. I’ve always been connected to the natural world and have lived in a country setting all my adult life. The bond with the snail really affirmed my feeling that the natural world is critical to our health and that as humans we need to be more responsible about our place on earth. We are not the most important species, we are just one of millions of species.
You have described the Snail in great detail, was there any part of it that you were absolutely astounded by?
The snail as a whole animal is what astounded me. What appears at first to be a simple creature is actually a complex animal form capable of everything any other animal form is capable of: a serious love life, an epicurean appetite, choosing a comfortable place to sleep, skilled locomotion, complex defense mechanisms, that’s what was so riveting. That I could write an entire chapter on slime or another entire chapter on the way a snail hibernates—there was just so much to say.
I did find myself envious of many snail traits. What human would not want to be able to climb straight up a wall or glide across a ceiling? What human would not want to have strength ten times what is normal for us? And if we could hibernate when times were tough think how useful that would be! To find myself envying the snail put the limits of our own species into perspective, and that was humbling. Yes, we may run faster than a snail, but we can’t glide across a ceiling. Why is one of those skills any better than the other? We are each perfectly adapted to our niche.
Have you maintained the calm you learnt through the Snail’s presence?
If I had not been ill I could never have spent a year observing a snail. Illness had taken me so far down that I was quite isolated from human society. When the snail came to join me it was the perfect companion with its microcosmic world and slow speed. I had this window into the snail’s world, and its world felt like a much better fit to my own life as I couldn’t partake much in my human world. I tend to think anyone in my situation would have done just as I did, watched a snail if it happened to arrive on the scene.
I’d like to be as calm as a snail appears to be, but I am not. I am a human and like most humans I want to do as much as I can manage to do in my own world. Even with an illness, I tend to push my limits. Watching the snail gave me a sense of how each species lives within its own naturally evolved speed. Ants move very quickly, snails very slowly; each has a lifestyle in tune with its natural speed and so do humans.
Were you as close to nature before your encounter with your snail?
Before my illness I was extremely active, gardening, hiking, sailing and kayaking. The natural world has always brought me solace, it is calming and grounding. It is an endlessly rich environment which fully stimulates all the senses. The weather is always in flux, the seasons change, plants and trees are always growing, animals are moving about, there is continual change in light, wind, shadows, odors, and textures. I still like to be outside as much as I can be even when I can’t be that physically active. The shift of seasons and the germination of seeds are magical. The natural world is rejuvenating and healing and gives one hope. Even if it’s only seen out a window, it is restful and restorative for the mind. The natural world is where we came from and what sustains us.
How did your relationship with this snail affect your view of/relationship with nature?
During the year I observed the snail it was mostly an emotional bond, a respect for its abilities, and constant companionship. Years later, when I worked on the book, I learned many more details about its life and it was more of an intellectual journey. I also learned that pathogens—viruses and bacteria—are sometimes involved in speciation. They are not always harmful, they are also creative and helped, to some degree, shape both snails and humans. Ultimately, examining one very small animal in depth brought me to a better understanding of how we are all kin and how each species has evolved into its current niche. Writing the book I realized that while no one wants to be ill, illness is not unnatural; pathogens are part of the natural world.
Have you any plans for a study of another small creature?
At the moment I am just trying to keep up with this book which, as small as it is, seems to be moving around the world much faster than I can move myself! As it arrives in each new country there are interviews and such. But given how much I learned about my snail I think every small creature deserves a book of its own and I hope other writers will help tackle this challenge.
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