“Everything in the world of things and animals
is filled with happening, which you can take part in.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke, 1927
In The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, author Elisabeth Tova Bailey is bedridden and finds comfort and wonder on her nightstand. A snail lives there, in a pot of field violets. Holding and reading a book for any length of time requires more strength and concentration than Bailey has, but she finds that watching the snail completely relaxes her. Her curiosity takes her into the mysterious life of the gastropod. This other life, being lived just inches away, is riveting. Here begins the journey of her survival.
Mandarin Chinese for “humble abode”, wo ju, which literally means “snail’s house”
Bailey’s prose is as much about the writer as it is about the snail. It’s both exploratory and reflective. She probes deep within and shares how this little mollusk affects her. Bailey learns not just about nature; she learns from nature. She takes a remarkable mental journey. Her journal is her close companion and out of it comes the source material for her small but powerful book.
Kind of like Thoreau. He began to journal in response to a question from Emerson, writing down what he was seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking about the world around him. The tiny intimate sound of a snail eating prompts Bailey to do the same. Both journals emerge from the act of writing to discover. I like the way Thoreau and Bailey write about things that puzzle them. Even though it contradicts the “write-what-you-know” rule. It makes sense to me. If you begin with what you know, where do you go next? You might discover that you know more than you think you do.
Thoreau’s life work as a writer began with this first entry:
Oct 22, 1837. “What are you doing now?” he asked, “Do you keep a journal?”— So I make my first entry to-day. Solitude.
Here’s mine for January 18, 2011 ~
A driving snow, still falling. Inches deep, a weft and a warp of snowy batting. Each snowstorm is interesting in its own way. The snow is as light as oat bran; the flakes, perfect geometrical figures.
Good time to stay in the house and read and write. I can hear the clock tick and the wind howl. The evergreens have less ice than yesterday. Trunks of trees are covered on the north sides. I wonder if this is why they are covered in lichens, come summer. Even the house is plastered with snow, ridges of drifts against doors and windows.
The snow is printed with the tracks of mice and other animals, attracted by the remaining seed heads. I imagine the moles and voles can find their hoarded treasures under it. I can see little holes, about the size of my thumb, here and there.
The crows gather, walk up the snow piles to peck at the suet. Chickadees and finches fly, and are blown, between feeder and bush.
I remember Thoreau’s story about a crazy man who walked into an empty pulpit and said, “Let us sing winter.” What else is there to sing if we want to be in harmony with the season? Longfellow’s poem is about Winter’s wild music. May it cheer you long.
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When winter winds are piercing chill,
And through the hawthorn blows the gale,
With solemn feet I tread the hill,
That overbrows the lonely vale.
O’er the bare upland, and away
Through the long reach of desert woods,
The embracing sunbeams chastely play,
And gladden these deep solitudes.
Where, twisted round the barren oak,
The summer vine in beauty clung,
And summer winds the stillness broke,
The crystal icicle is hung.
Where, from their frozen urns, mute springs
Pour out the river’s gradual tide,
Shrilly the skater’s iron rings,
And voices fill the woodland side.
Alas! how changed from the fair scene,
When birds sang out their mellow lay,
And winds were soft, and woods were green,
And the song ceased not with the day!
But still wild music is abroad,
Pale, desert woods! within your crowd;
And gathering winds, in hoarse accord,
Amid the vocal reeds pipe loud.
Chill airs and wintry winds! my ear
Has grown familiar with your song;
I hear it in the opening year,
I listen, and it cheers me long.