Prologue

 

Viruses are embedded into the very fabric of all life.

— Luis P. Villarreal, “The Living and Dead Chemical Called a Virus,” 2005

From my hotel window I look over the deep glacial lake to the foothills and the Alps beyond. Twilight vanishes the hills into the mountains; then all is lost to the dark.

After breakfast, I wander the cobbled village streets. The frost is out of the ground, and huge bushes of rosemary bask fragrantly in the sun. I take a trail that meanders up the steep, wild hills past flocks of sheep. High on an outcrop, I lunch on bread and cheese. Late in the afternoon along the shore, I find ancient pieces of pottery, their edges smoothed by waves and time. I hear that a virulent flu is sweeping this small town.

A few days pass and then comes a delirious night. My dreams are disturbed by the comings and goings of ferries. Passengers call into the dark, startling me awake. Each time I fall back into sleep, the lake’s watery sound pulls at me. Something is wrong with my body. Nothing feels right.

In the morning I am weak and can’t think. Some of my muscles don’t work. Time becomes strange. I get lost; the streets go in too many directions. The days drift past in confusion. I pack my suitcase, but for some reason it’s impossible to lift. It seems to be stuck to the floor. Somehow I get to the airport. Seated next to me on the transatlantic flight is a sick surgeon; he sneezes and coughs continually. My rare, much-needed vacation has not gone as planned. I’ll be okay; I just want to get home.

After a flight connection in Boston, I land at my small New England airport near midnight. In the parking lot, as I bend over to dig my car out of the snow, the shovel turns into a crutch that I use to push myself upright. I don’t know how I get home. Arising the next morning, I immediately faint to the floor. Ten days of fever with a pounding headache. Emergency room visits. Lab tests. I am sicker than I have ever been. Childhood pneumonia, college mononucleosis — those were nothing compared to this.

A few weeks later, resting on the couch, I spiral into a deep darkness, falling farther and farther away until I am impossibly distant. I cannot come back up; I cannot reach my body. Distant sound of an ambulance siren. Distant sound of doctors talking. My eyelids heavy as boulders. I try to open them to a slit, just for a few seconds, but they close against my will. All I can do is breathe.

The doctors will know how to fix me. They will stop this. I keep breathing. What if my breath stops? I need to sleep, but I am afraid to sleep. I try to watch over myself; if I go to sleep, I might never wake up again.

 

 

1. Field Violets

at my feet
when did you get here?
snail

— Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828)

In early spring, a friend went for a walk in the woods and, glancing down at the path, saw a snail. Picking it up, she held it gingerly in the palm of her hand and carried it back toward the studio where I was convalescing. She noticed some field violets on the edge of the lawn. Finding a trowel, she dug a few up, then planted them in a terra-cotta pot and placed the snail beneath their leaves. She brought the pot into the studio and put it by my bedside.

“I found a snail in the woods. I brought it back and it’s right here beneath the violets.”

“You did? Why did you bring it in?”

“I don’t know. I thought you might enjoy it.”

“Is it alive?”

She picked up the brown acorn-sized shell and looked at it. “I think it is.”
Why, I wondered, would I enjoy a snail? What on earth would I do with it? I couldn’t get out of bed to return it to the woods. It was not of much interest, and if it was alive, the responsibility — especially for a snail, something so uncalled for — was overwhelming.

My friend hugged me, said good-bye, and drove off.

At age thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe, I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms. I had thought I was indestructible. But I wasn’t. If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn’t. Medical specialists at several major clinics couldn’t diagnose the infectious culprit. I was in and out of the hospital for months, and the complications were life threatening. An experimental drug that became available stabilized my condition, though it would be several grueling years to a partial recovery and a return to work. My doctors said the illness was behind me, and I wanted to believe them. I was ecstatic to have most of my life back.

But out of the blue came a series of insidious relapses, and once again, I was bedridden. Further, more sophisticated testing showed that the mitochondria in my cells no longer functioned correctly and there was damage to my autonomic nervous system; all functions not consciously directed, including heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, had gone haywire. The drug that had previously helped now caused dangerous side effects; it would soon be removed from the market.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive. Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness, and intolerable loss.

Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties. It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour, yet days slipped silently past. 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.

I had been moved to a studio apartment where I could receive the care I needed. My own farmhouse, some fifty miles away, was closed up. I did not know if or when I’d ever make it home again. For now, my only way back was to close my eyes and remember. I could see the early spring there, the purple field violets — like those at my bedside — running rampant through the yard. And the fragrant small pink violets that I had planted in the little woodland garden to the north of my house — they, too, would be in bloom. Though not usually hardy this far north, somehow they survived. In my mind I could smell their sweetness.

Before my illness, my dog, Brandy, and I had often wandered the acres of forest that stretched beyond the house to a hidden, mountain-fed brook. The brook’s song of weather and season followed us as we crisscrossed its channel over partially submerged boulders. On the trail home, in the boggiest of spots, perched on tiny islands of root and moss, I found diminutive wild white violets, their throats faintly striped with purple.

These field violets in the pot at my bedside were fresh and full of life, unlike the usual cut flowers brought by other friends. Those lasted just a few days, leaving murky, odoriferous vase water. In my twenties I had earned my living as a gardener, so I was glad to have this bit of garden right by my bed. I could even water the violets with my drinking glass.

But what about this snail? What would I do with it? As tiny as it was, it had been going about its day when it was picked up. What right did my friend and I have to disrupt its life? Though I couldn’t imagine what kind of life a snail might lead.

I didn’t remember ever having noticed any snails on my countless hikes in the woods. Perhaps, I thought, looking at the nondescript brown creature, it was precisely because they were so inconspicuous. For the rest of the day the snail stayed inside its shell, and I was too worn out from my friend’s visit to give it another thought.

What was unusual about your first professional writing, which was published when you were only 23 years old?

My first published writing was the growing instructions on the back of flower seed packets. It was like writing tiny poems or haiku—every word mattered. It was instructions for life—the life of the seeds, and my own as well.

Can you make the sound of a wild snail eating?

I don’t think this sound can be made by a human. Some radio interviewers have asked me to try but how could I, with only 32 teeth, reproduce the sound of a snail’s 2,640 teeth? However, some scientist friends recorded the sound of a real snail eating and you can listen to the sound on my website.

How dangerous is the writing life?

I do most of my reading lying down, holding a book above my head. My arms get weak and sometimes the book falls on me. This is a serious concern. “Author dies of concussion from dropped book” is a headline best avoided.

Explain one of the rarely discussed complications of the writing life.

I edit hard copy with a pen and invariably I get ink everywhere. I get ink on my clothing, my sheets, and my skin. Before they invented the new kind of correction tape, I used to use liquid Wite-Out. If I wore black, Wite-Out always managed to jump on. Everything was black and white. I got black on white and white on black.

Were there any coincidences involving the writing and researching of your book?

There were many coincidences of which I will just tell you one. Nearly at the end of the writing process I learned about an interesting pathogen that may have been involved in my illness. I saw a new infectious disease doctor to discuss the possibility, as I wanted to include it in the epilogue. It turned out the doctor had a side interest: He was involved in a snail research study in the Galapagos.

What do you wish you could have included in The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating but didn’t?

As I worked on the book anything that didn’t fit in but that I couldn’t let go of got moved into the epilogue—like sweeping dust under a rug. The epilogue grew and grew until it was humongous. Finally, I had to cut out wonderful long Victorian quotes or the epilogue would have been wagging the book. A bit of that cut material just came out in my essay “A Green World Deep in Winter: The Bedside Terrarium,” which appeared in February 2011 in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

Are you a morning writer or a night writer?

Please let me be a morning writer!!!!!!! Morning writers get their work done early and then enjoy the rest of the day guilt free! Not I, alas. It is 1:18 a.m. as I write this. I wish it were not so. I simply can not focus or concentrate until all has gone quiet and everyone in the houses around me is asleep. Then I write until I get stuck, at which point I go to bed. Just as I am about to fall asleep I start solving the creative challenges, scribbling things down by flashlight throughout the night. In the morning, I am a wreck from the insomnia but the nearly illegible notes are gold.

What is it like to tell someone that you are writing a book?

I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which the general public romanticizes the writing life. My earlier respectable professions never drew the level of instant interest that I get now when I say that I am a writer. It boggles my mind how anyone can romanticize the silent torturous routine of staring at a computer screen in creative paralysis. Writing—at least for me—is mostly a matter of continual rewriting. I rewrite every sentence dozens of times. Some sentences haunt me for months before I manage to perfect them. If you are a writer, people invariably ask what you write about. For some reason my subject matter—an individual snail—seems to leave people speechless.

Do people give you snails?

Yes, snail candles, snail soap, snail salt & pepper shakers. I immediately regift these snails to new homes. The only snail that mattered to me personally was the one in my book. Imagine if you wrote a book about a spouse or child or a cat or dog and then everyone wanted to give you more spouses and children and lots of cats and dogs? One needs to be careful what subject one chooses to write about. I think my next book will be about air or mountains or sleeping. Or maybe I’ll go back to writing about flower seeds.

Did you really find a way to tell a 6 minute and 40 second story of how you wrote The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating?

You ask very good questions! Do you know about Pecha Kucha? It’s a patented format in which you explain a life story or passion in 20 slides with 20 seconds of talking per slide. I created a Pecha Kucha for my book. It’s now up on my website so you can see it for yourself. It tells the story of why and how I wrote the book and has plot, pathos and humor, surprises, and a good ending, all packed into less than 7 minutes.

Did you really film a snail?

Yes! It was fun. Though I don’t know what the snail thought. We caught some wonderful snail behavior. A bit of the film footage is on my website.

If you get a film offer on your book, which character would you want to be?

The snail.