I recently came across a review of the book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey. It sounded like the kind of book I would love to read, so I ordered it from my local library. Luckily, it ended up being well worth the read, and I will be buying my own copy of it soon.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating begins with author Elisabeth Tova Bailey confined to her bed with a mysterious illness, unable to sit upright for more than a few moments or to listen to most music. Unexpectedly, she is given a pot of violets by a friend. Inside the pot is a snail. “I thought you might enjoy it,” her friend tells her, but Bailey is not so sure, as she writes:
“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.”
But as she watches the snail, she begins to become attached to it. Watching it becomes a comfort to her, and she sees in the snail’s life similarities to her own life: “I was simply homebound, like a snail pulled into its shell,” she writes of her illness. Bailey discovers that the snail is nocturnal, that it will eat holes in papers left near its flower pot, and that, when she wakes at night and listens carefully, she can sometimes hear “the comforting sound of the snail’s minuscule munching”. With the help of her caregiver, Bailey gives her snail a home in a terrarium, discovers what kinds of foods it likes, and delves into the literature of snails to learn more about her companion. She realizes that the snail “was adding a welcome focus to my life, and I couldn’t think how I would otherwise have passed the time.”
Like the snail itself, or like the haikus that frequently appear as chapter epigraphs, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a quiet, slow-paced, simply-written book. It is not a book to rush through, but to savour slowly, one short chapter at a time. It’s a beautiful story of how a single deep relationship in nature can transform a life, and how by learning to observe with a loving attention to our subjects, the world becomes a so much richer place. These riches are accessible to anyone, of any ability, of any stage in life – even someone who, like Bailey, may be confined to bed. What I also like about this book is that Bailey leaves us free to draw our own conclusions. She shares her discoveries about snail biology and ecology with a sense of fascination and joy at learning something new, but she does not philosophize or attempt to boil everything down to one “lesson”. The book remains rooted in the personal, the immediate. In a letter to her doctor, Bailey writes:
“Watching another creature go about its life… somehow gave me, the watcher, purpose too. If life mattered to the snail and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on.”
If The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating sounds interesting to you, check out Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s website, where you can find out more about the book, read the opening chapters, and watch a short slideshow narrated by Bailey that gives the background behind the book. The slideshow contains a video of a snail like the one in the book and a recording of the sound of a snail eating. “I must remember the snail. Always remember the snail,” Bailey writes in her journal at the end of the book, and I also will remember both the snail and Bailey’s quietly lyrical book.