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

The Baron in The Trees

Psst, that’s right-  you, down there. Come on up. Give me your hand. Okay? There you go, watch that low branch. Have a seat, no — here, this is a better spot. Comfy? I know, I know, it’s different — but you’re here now.  I just have to tell you a story about the boy who lived in the trees…

Italo Calvino’s magical 1957 novel, The Baron in The Trees, is the story of young Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, an eighteenth century nobleman who leaves his family dinner table one night at the age of twelve and climbs into a tree behind his family home. It’s a rash move. He’s ill prepared and his family even less so, met with disbelief that their oldest son should take such drastic action in proving a point.

Cosimo said: ”I told you I don’t want any, and I don’t!” and pushed away his plateful of snails. Never had we seen such disobedience.

Yet move into the trees Cosimo does, and in so doing, he enters a world of wonder liltingly written by Calvino. The translation by Archibald Colquhoun skilfully reveals Calvino’s humor and supremely deft description. The words fly from their pages in a manner not unlike that of boys running through stacks of sun-dried leaves.

The Baron in The Trees is a quintessentially winsome tale, eliciting a childlike sense of anticipation as the reader encounters delight upon delight. Cosimo, unsteady boy at first, embarks upon his adventure in a state of mixed trepidation and raw bravado, beset by practical concerns as well as more serious ones. He must find a way to eat, sleep, and bathe while remaining vigilant against a local brigand and a cunning feral cat. Never fear, Calvino brilliantly lets the reader hop closely alongside as Cosimo craftily meets his physical dilemmas and soon branches into the loftier concerns of adulthood. In little over 200 pages, among other feats, Cosimo manages to: hunt, garden, sew, rehabilitate  a criminal (using literature no less!), read voluminously, correspond with the high and mighty, make war, travel, make love, publish a newspaper, and own a dog, all while maintaining close ties with his nameless younger brother who serves as narrator.

While down below our world lay flattened, and our bodies looked quite disproportionate and we certainly understood nothing of what he knew up there — he who spent his nights listening to the sap running through its cells; the circles marking the years inside the trunks; the patches of mold growing ever larger helped by the north wind; the birds sleeping and quivering in their nests, then resettling their heads in the softest down of their wings; and the caterpillar waking, and the chrysalis opening.

Love enters Cosimo’s world as well, and Calvino’s luxurious description of the match flits between playful sensuality and gentle poignancy.

On summer afternoons, when sleep took the two lovers side by side, a squirrel would enter, looking for something to nibble, and stroke their faces with its feathery tail or plunge its teeth into a big toe. Then they would pull the curtains to more carefully; but a family of tree mice began gnawing at the roof of the pavilion and fell down on their heads.

This was the time in which they were discovering each other, telling of their lives, questioning.

”And did you feel alone?”

”I hadn’t you.”

”But alone before the rest of the world?”

”No. Why? I always had contacts with other people; I picked fruit, pruned trees, studied philosophy with the Abbé, fought the pirates. Isn’t it like that for everyone?”

”You’re the only one like that, that’s why I love you.”

The world of everyday concern follows Cosimo into the trees as well, bringing family strife, heartbreak and even the intrusion of Napoleon into the ”land of vines.” In one splendid section, Cosimo regales his brother with his own version of how he shelters the Lieutenant-poet Agrippa Papillon of Rouen and volunteers of the Republican army.

With the French army I tried to have as little to do as possible, as we know what armies are, every time they move there’s some disaster. But I had taken rather a liking to that outpost of Lieutenant Papillon and was rather worried about what might happen to them. For the immobility of the front threatened to be fatal to the squadron under the poet’s command. Moss and lichen were growing on the troopers’ uniforms, and sometimes even heather and fern; the tops of the busbies were nested in by screech owls, or sprouted and flowered with lilies of the valley; their thigh boots clotted with soil into compact clogs. The whole platoon was about to take root. Lieutenant Agrippa Papillon’s yielding attitude toward nature was sinking that squad of brave men into a fusion of animal and vegetable.

Thus Cosimo comes to soldier on, through ingenious implements of the forest and the fancy of Calvino. The life and times of Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò all too quickly pass under the reader’s eye with dapples of light and dark, some soaking rain, and great sprinklings of love and generosity from their author.  In finishing the novel, I knew that ”all was to change, and no Cosimo will ever walk the trees again.” But – wait here with me for just a few seconds- listen, listen close.