The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
By Elisabeth Tova Bailey
This is a beautifully written little book, fascinating in the information it presents as well as the ponderings of the author. The language is spare and precise, painting a vivid picture. There are no wasted words here. Though the impetus for the author writing the book is quite dire, it is a soft, quiet, thoughtful, humorous book – relaxing and restorative.
“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.” p4
Elizabeth Tova Bailey is laid out flat on her back. Her body cannot regulate its own temperature, if she sits up her blood pressure plummets and even rolling over causes her heart to beat wildly. After one setback, she is forced to move from her beloved farmhouse to a studio apartment in order to get the care she needs. Before leaving her farmhouse, a friend goes for a walk in the woods and happens upon a snail. She digs up some violets and soil, pots them and brings the little bit of woods and the snail in to Bailey.
“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.”
It turns out to be the perfect companion. Bailey cannot stand much noise but the title of the book comes from the comfort she takes in the actual munching sound as the snail eats at night. “I could hear it eating. The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously.”
Bailey’s medical plight is interesting but she is restrained in how much time she spends on it. Even more fascinating is the information she learns and shares about snails, her observations of her own snail and her ponderings.
On its nightly forays down off the violet pot onto the nightstand, the snail munches on some interesting things. “The night before, I had propped an envelope containing a letter against the base of the lamp. Now I noticed a mysterious square hole just below the return address. This was baffling. How could a hole – a square hole – appear in an envelope overnight? Then I thought of the snail and its evening activity. The snail was clearly nocturnal. It must have some kind of teeth, and it wasn’t shy about using them.” Bailey takes to sending out envelopes with little square holes and writing “eaten by my snail” with an arrow to the hole.
They do eventually move the snail from the pot of violets to a terrarium.
“With an old leaf here and a pine needle there, the terrarium looked as though a bit of native forest floor, with all its natural disarray, had been lifted up and placed inside. The moist, lush vibrancy of the plants reminded me of the woods after a rainstorm. It was a world fit for a snail, and it was a welcome sight for my own eyes as well.” p27
Snail behavior turns out to be fascinating. Apparently they will work together to escape from a farmer’s basket where they farm escargot in France and a copy of Darwin’s Descent of Man recounted a fascinating tale about an observation of a healthy snail searching for good forage and returning for a sickly friend which it then led to the food. p99
“I wondered what happened to snails during the last ice age, and so I asked the malacologist Tim Pearce if he thought a snail could outglide an advancing glacier. He speculated that some of the larger terrestrial snails might possibly outpace a very slow flow of ice.” p108
I highly recommend this book for the wealth of information that you never would have imagined regarding snails. They surround us in our yards and gardens but this will teach you to respect them, if not love them. I also recommend it for the sheer beauty of the writing.