Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating - Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I read about this book a while ago but couldn't bring myself to read it.  I will admit here that I'm a bit of a hypochondriac and I avoid reading about illness.  It's too much like real life and that's not why I read.  However, while waiting at a hospital, I finished the book I was reading on my Kindle (Eat and Run) and needed something else to read.  I was already at the hospital and freaking out, so I decided I'd start The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.  I'm glad I did.

It was hard to read about the sudden and catastrophic illness, a mysterious virus, that felled, literally, the author.  It could happen to any of us.  She was confined to bed and had to have people come in daily to care for her.  She couldn't sit up or stand up, music was too disconcerting except for Gregorian chants played with the volume low.  However, she doesn't make this the focus of the book.

A friend dug up some wild violets, potted them up, included a wild woodland snail, and gave it to Ms. Bailey.  All she could do was lie in bed on her side and watch the snail.  The snail explored its new home but never strayed.  She watched it float up and down the pot and the plant, she watched it find cozy places to sleep.  It soothed her to watch if living its life.  She wanted to know more about the snail and its life, so she started to research snails.

I love the 19th century naturalists who observed insects and animals, people like Darwin and Jean-Henri Fabre, and, a surprise to me, Oliver Goldsmith.  I thought he only wrote The Vicar of Wakefield.  She quotes poets on snails.  Really?  Who knew there were so many poems about snails?

Because she her world was so restricted and she was in such close proximity to the snail, she watched it drink, either sipping with its many-toothed mouth (they have teeth that replace themselves, like sharks, I believe, a new set sliding forward when the old ones wear down) or absorbing water through its foot.  She discovers eggs it's laid, either previously fertilized or created hermaphroditically.

I made a lot of notes about snails while reading this, but I think you should read the book and find out for yourself.  They're amazing creatures.  They can mend their shells if they're damaged, they're nocturnal, they're the only land animal able to find calcium by smell, they're pretty much deaf and blind but have acute senses of smell, touch, and taste, they like to try new food but are crazy about mushrooms, although they're solitary creatures, they have been observed helping other snails.  They also have a very sensual courtship.

I am so glad I read this.  Not only is it a picture of a difficult illness and the remarkable woman who still managed to create in the midst of the chaos, it's a fascinating picture of the lives of snails.  It's not clear to me how much the author recovered, but she eventually went back to her Maine farmhouse.   She asks a friend to take the snail and its offspring back to the woods where the snail had lived so they could live the lives they were meant to live, as she wishes she could.  It was a kind and fitting end to this small book.


  1. That's another book that doesn't seem to have made it to Fife libraries, I'll look for it elsewhere, despite the fact that I usually lob any snails in my garden into the adjacent grassland! I reckon they have homing instincts though.

    1. You might see snails differently if you read the book. I knew nothing about snails and was mesmerized.

  2. This book has been on my list for so long! I really do have to get around to reading it. Thank you for reminding me about it!

    1. It's a short book, Stefanie, and, to me, completely absorbing.