The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Last winter, I met up with a snail at the fringes of an oatmeal packet. It happened just like this: early one desperately cold morning, a brain teaser from the instant oats papers caught my eye as I stood, sleepy headed, in a thin gown waiting for breakfast to cool. The cereal sleeve read, Q: Which garden creature can sleep for three years? A: the snail. I felt suddenly and warmly touched by the notion of such a small, vulnerable thing bedding down for so long, instinctively knowing that all would be well upon return. For a moment, I wished to be just as deeply slept. That morning began what’s become a slight fascination with the ancient forest dweller who chews through my hosta leaves each summer and whom I can never bring myself to banish with home remedies or harsh treatment.

Forward then to last Sunday, a merciless July day that resulted in my first ever drive to Iowa City and the iconic Prairie Lights Bookstore. After an hour or so of inspired browsing, parking meter and budget constraints forced me to get serious about one or two titles. That’s when I spied the cover of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, shyly posed on the staff picks shelf. I almost tripped in delight as I dove to pick it up. Who wouldn’t?

Bailey’s ode to the snail begins briefly recounting an illness, her own, and with it her harrowing removal from the activities of her well ordered life into forced recumbency within a sickroom. She addresses the malady and its course with grace such that her eye, and the reader’s, remains upon the gastropod who is lovingly plucked by a friend from the woods just outside her home and gifted within a pot of field violets.

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, odiferous vase water…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?

The disrupted life is at the heart of Bailey’s meditation upon her snail. What happens to us when things happen? Can we “love the questions”, as the poet Rilke suggests, or is there shrinking and defending afoot whenever change and uncertainty are about. Through Bailey’s thoughtful words, the life of the woodland snail provides a small template for contemplation of our larger animal selves. Snails possess so much more than their slimy reputation suggests. They have a heart, a lung, rudimentary eyes, and a sleep-wake rhythm that normally occurs within the same 24 hours as ours, though it’s true they can sleep for years. They meet disruption with slow and careful tentacles, feeling and sensing in a beautiful proportion that allows for sure footed balance.

Bailey sprinkles numerous poetic, scientific, and literary references to the snail, from the ancient Mandarin Chinese to Darwin, from mollusc experts to Emily Dickinson, all people who have thought and written about the nature of snail explorations, their architecture, slimy abilities, and their social graces.  Snails, I am just finding out, know where they are and what they are about. Though they do use some defenses, their tactics are more in line with some of my own such as hiding when the sun is too hot and cherishing a good portobello mushroom in small bites.

Then, there’s that special connection snails enjoy…

A romantic encounter between a pair of snails can take up to seven hours from start to finish and involves three phases. First there is the lengthy courtship, in which the snails draw slowly closer, often circling each other, smooching, and exchanging tentacle touches…In the second phase, the snails embrace in a spiral direction and mate…Consummation is followed by the last phase, resting; the snails, still quite near each other, both withdraw into their shells and remain immobile, sometimes for several hours.

This lovely book about the little snail traveled with me this week to Chicago and helped me to keep perspective and smile at passersby while shepherding two teenagers through the urban landscape. Snail and The City, anyone? Truth is, I would recommend this immensely charming book for just about anyone, anywhere. Who needs a noise machine, a chemical habit, or satin eye shades when there is some time to be spent unwinding with a woodland snail?

Marauder by ono no komachi courtesy of Flickr

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