The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey


The author was struck ill with a particularly virulent strain of the flu while in Switzerland1. Although she recovered from the original bout of influenza, it played havoc with her immune system, leaving her with something approximating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, only much MUCH worse. This left her unable to turn over, much less rise from her bed, and required her to move from her beloved farmhouse home to a minuscule studio apartment, close enough to town that she could get the nursing care she needed. One day, a friend brought her a potted up wild violet, which happened to contain a minuscule wild snail under one of its leaves.

Flat on her back in a stark white studio, having little else to look at other than the ceiling, Bailey became fascinated with the snail, watching it crawl about its now circumscribed home. The snail had fairly clear tastes, both in crawling surface and in what it ate: it preferred forest humus to ordinary potting soil, creeping along the violet’s leaves to avoid the latter, and portobello mushrooms were a gourmet feast. At night, it crept out to explore the world around its little violet pot, nibbling at various things tasty by the alien standards (to humans) of a woodland snail. Even as debilitated as she was–she’s still incapacitated by most people’s standards two years after the book’s publication–a snail’s needs were low-key enough for her to manage. She attended to its gastropodal needs as she recovered, and in the end wrote a bit of prose that might equally well be called free verse. (No idea what the snail had to say about matters.)

As with so many books, this is not for everyone. It will hopefully come as no surprise that a book won’t have a lot of thrilling high speed action if it’s about a woman prostrated by illness who occupies her otherwise empty days by watching a snail crawling about its terrarium. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for an author with the patience (albeit enforced by an outside influence) to sit still long enough and quietly enough to actually hear a snail eating? see it moving?

This is a remarkably swift read for a book by an ill woman about the daily activities of a little snail. Don’t let that fool you. If you’re the sort to read memoirs reflecting on the inner life of molluscs, which even at their most sophisticated, aren’t terribly complicated creatures from a biological or intellectual standard, this will give you cause to stop and think. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would; while I zipped through the book on first reading, I came back to it for a second slower and more contemplative reading.

Mother Nature Network
Odyssey Books

1or perhaps Italy; I’m not entirely clear on this point.

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