by Fran Withrow
Sometimes I come across a book that is so glorious I must share it with you, even though it is not a new release. This is the case with “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” which I heard about and devoured in a single sitting. I am a sucker for nature writing and memoirs, and this endearing little book is both.
At age 34, Elisabeth Tova Bailey was struck by a mysterious pathogen that devastated her nervous and circulatory systems so badly she was bedridden. Unable to even sit up, her world suddenly became one of intense isolation and helplessness. This formerly active hiker and dog lover was now transformed into an invalid. It would be easy to fall into a depression under such difficult circumstances.
One day, a friend found a land snail in the woods and carried it to Bailey in a pot of violets. Since Bailey couldn’t do anything else, she watched the snail. And thus was born this tender, contemplative narrative.
Bailey weaves her observations about this snail with what she learns through research about these quiet but fascinating creatures. She finds parallels as well as contrasts between her life and that of the snail, and her relationship with the snail is the slender thread that carries her through the heartbreak of her physical ailments.
I quickly became captivated by her snail, this slow creature traversing its new habitat while leaving behind a slimy trail. Bailey’s description of the snail, sleeping sweetly under a leaf during the day, awakening at night to snack on mushrooms or crushed eggshells, crawling out of the pot of violets only to return to it each morning, made this little gastropod seem utterly charming. Her snail is eventually moved to a terrarium, which she makes as much like its natural habitat as she can. She appreciates its amazing spiraled shell, how this geometrically pleasing “house” grows as the snail grows. She learns that the snail’s foot is versatile; that it not only moves the snail but can also dig a chamber for hibernation. She muses on our common ancestor, our similarities. She marvels at its tentacles and rows of tiny teeth.
Bailey’s writing is compassionate and warm, a gentle meditation, thoughtful and provocative. She is aware that she has upended the life of her snail by keeping it in captivity, just as she is trapped in her own weakened, fragile body. When she is finally able to leave the studio apartment where she has been staying and return to her farmhouse, she releases her snail, only keeping –temporarily– one of its offspring. (Yes, here you can learn about snail babies too!)
Her respect for wildlife–and what she discovers about how nature can help us rise above the things that bowl us over–make this an alluring read. And when you next come across a snail, determinedly wandering among the loam, you’ll be less likely to casually nudge it aside. Perhaps you will sit with it awhile, observing, before walking on in gratitude for life’s gifts, both large and small.
“The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating”
by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill