The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: An Uncommon Meditation on Presence and the Aperture of Wonder

Anything you lavish with attention will become a mirror, a portal, a lens on the meaning of life — a dandeliona muskrata mountain.

A snail.

Not long after I wrote an existentially hued children’s book about a snail, a friend sent me Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s slender, splendid memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (public library) — the record of an uncommon experiment in learning that the smaller the aperture of attention, the more wonder rushes in.

Snail by Paul Sougy. (Available as a print.)

At thirty-four, while traveling through Europe, Bailey was felled by severe neurological symptoms — the result of a mysterious viral or bacterial invasion that savaged her mitochondria, vanquishing youth’s sense of invincibility, subverting the common faith in modern medicine: In and out of hospitals as treatment after treatment failed to help, she was eventually left pinned to her bed at home, the distance to the bookshelf across the room an expedition demanding a whole day’s energies. She reflects:

Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties.

She slips into the time-warp of illness — the way it has of making an eternity of a single moment while letting entire days vanish. Millennia after Seneca contemplated the balance of time spent, saved, and wasted and a decade before Zadie Smith considered the pandemic as a lens on time, Bailey observes:

Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

And then the blur is suddenly interrupted by a peculiar gift: One day, a friend brings her a pot of violets from the nearby forest, housing a single Neohelix albolabris — a common woodland snail.

Art by Ping Zhu from The Snail with the Right Heart

At first indignant about what she could possibly do with a bivalve pet when she can hardly sit up, Bailey grows quickly fascinated by the creature’s feeding habits, its sleep rhythms, its gentle insistence on survival. She decides to give it a proper home. In a dusty corner of the barn next to the studio where she is bedridden, her caretaker finds a discarded glass aquarium that soon becomes a lavish terrarium filled with native plants from the snail’s woodland home.

Having once made a living as a professional gardener, Bailey takes vivifying delight in populating the tiny botanical garden, listing out plants she doesn’t know whether she will ever again see in the wild:

Goldthread — aptly named for its colorful roots — holding its trio of delicate, paw-shaped leaves high on a thin stem; partridgeberry, with its round, dark green leaves and its small, bright red berries, which lasted for months; the larger, waxy leaves of checkerberry; many kinds of moss; small polypody ferns; a tiny spruce tree; a rotting birch log; and a piece of old bark encrusted with multicolored lichen.

Fern by Anne Pratt. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Captive in her bedroom, she comes to see the snail’s home as a microcosm of existence — its terrarium an entire world, its miniature movements an ongoing odyssey, emanating what the great naturalist Henry Beston celebrated as the sacredness of smallness. In paying such tender and total attention to the snail’s life, she learns to pay attention to life itself at the focal point of the living moment, which is the only share of eternity we have. She reflects:

Survival often depends on a specific focus: a relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility. Or something more ephemeral: the way the sun passes through the hard, seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket, or how the wind, invisible but for its wake, is so loud one can hear it through the insulated walls of a house.

Looking in on the snail’s miniature universe, she learns to look out — out of the human-sized terrarium of her bedroom, out of the painful circumstance of her illness, out of the limiting if-only mind that tells us we need certain conditions in order to feel the majesty and mystery of life; she learns that even the smallest opening is enough for beauty and wonder to pour in, and that we make the opening with the sharpness of our attention — for attention is how we render reality what it is.

With an eye to her widened lens of wonder, she writes:

As I window-watched, I observed the comings and goings of my neighbors; they, too, were part of the rhythm of my familiar rural landscape. They would depart for work or errands and later return, walk their dogs, cut firewood, and check their roadside mailboxes. As twilight deepened, the low dart of a nighthawk over the field would catch my eye. Darkness brought the sparking of secret codes from the mate-seeking fireflies. Then, black on black, the swift shapes of bats would swoop for late-night morsels, and the hooting of owls would come softly, softly, from the woods — until all was quiet and still beneath the ancient brightness of distant stars and the shape-shifting moon.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a benediction of a book in its entirety — the kind rapturous to read, difficult to write about. Couple it with Virginia Woolf on illness as a portal to self-understanding, then revisit Helen Macdonald’s stunning memoir of what a hawk taught her about life.

Kate Sessions and the Devotion to Delight: The Forgotten Woman Who Covered California with Trees and Flowers

In May 1941, next to news of the Nazi savagely bombing London, The Los Angeles Times published a memorial profile of “California’s Mother of Gardens” — a hopeful antidote to the undoing of the human world, celebrating the woman who covered Southern California with the loveliest trees and flowers, having made a life at the crossing point of nature’s capacity for beauty and human nature’s capacity for delight.

Kate Sessions in her 20s

After becoming the first woman to earn a degree in science from Berkeley in 1881, Kate Sessions (November 8, 1857–March 24, 1940) took a job teaching mathematics at a San Diego public school. It was a shock to leave the redwoods for what appeared to her a desert landscape — plants had always been her great love: She had spent her childhood climbing trees and filling her herbarium with wildflowers; as a teenager, she had made an art of elaborate flower arrangements; as a young scientist, she had reveled in the dazzling molecular structure of trees under her microscope. Restless to do something about the dearth of greenery in her new home, she launched her own nursery and flower shop.

But then she dreamt bigger.

Just before her thirty-fifth birthday, Kate persuaded the city of San Diego to let her lease a 30-acre piece of barren public land to use as growing grounds. In exchange, she grew 100 new trees in it each year and gave another 300 to be planted along the city’s streets, around its plazas, in its public school yards. Soon, San Diego was covered in pine, oak, elm, cypress, eucalyptus, and pepper trees.

People rushed to her nursery to populate their own gardens with beauty. Vivacious and warmhearted, clad in her practical working clothes, Kate greeted visitors with a hug and led them through garden — across the miniature meadow of mesembryanthemums the colors of the rainbow, under the fragrant Australian eucalyptus trees never previously seen in California, past the rare heathers from South Africa — excited to show them “the latest plant pet,” as one friend recalled.

Auriculas from The Temple of Flora, 1812. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

She traveled up and down the California coast, searching for beautiful overlooked plants that could thrive in a drought-prone climate, which she cultivated in her nursery and shared with the community. Soon, gardeners all across Southern California were walking through their backyard wonderlands, lovingly touching their proudest plants and saying, “Kate Sessions gave me that.”

In the interlude between the two World Wars, Kate set out to learn about the world’s plants. She traveled to Hawaii and the Alps, drank in the “warm though bracing air and the wonderful blue of the Mediterranean” and admired the cypress-covered mountains of Italy “silvering with lichens on the rugged rocks,” visited the majestic gardens of Versailles and a tiny nursery on the shore of Lake Geneva, a stone’s throw from where Mary Shelley dreamt up Frankenstein.

Kate returned from her expedition with 140 new species, among them the purple-blooming tree now so iconic of Southern California — the beloved Jacaranda mimosifolia, also known as fern tree, which for forty million springs has been gracing sub-tropical South America with its ravishing blossoms.

Jacaranda from a French botany book, 1822. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Throughout her life, Kate corresponded tirelessly with other horticulturalists, hosted tree-planting parties, and wrote hundreds of magazine articles and papers — notes from her foreign expeditions, reports from flower shows, meticulous growing tips for particular plants, from wisteria to Chilean jasmine.

She never married. Her life was animated by her relationship with the Canadian horticulturalist Alice Eastwood, rooted in their shared love of flowers: “our children,” Kate told Alice, “which I am growing and you are naming.”

Kate Sessions in her 40s

When San Diego declared September 15 Kate Sessions Day, celebrating her botanical makeover of the city, she responded simply:

I didn’t do it. It was the plants that did it.

Complement her story with that of the Victorian visionary Marianne North, who traveled the world at the risk of her life to revolutionize art and science with her botanical paintings, then revisit this centuries-wide meditation on flowers and the meaning of life and this posy of poems celebrating the delights of gardening.

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