The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: A True Story by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I’m embarrassed to say that I picked up my copy of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s memoir at last years Book Expo, and waited until now to read it.  It seems to have become something of a sleeper hit.  First, I heard Michael Kindness review it on the podcast Books On the Nightstand.  Then there was a write-up in the NYRB.   And then I saw it featured at the local Barnes & Noble.  Memoirs are not my usual choice in reading material.  But this isn’t the typical memoir.  What is unusual about The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is Bailey’s decision to turn the focus away from herself and the illness that kept her bedridden.  Instead she focuses on the moment-to-moment existence of a small, wild snail brought to her in a pot of violets by a friend.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is how I imagine the journals of a 19th century amateur Naturalist would read.  Bailey has no scientific training, at least none she thinks worth mentioning.   She first takes note of her snail when she finds small, square holes in the corner of a letter on her bedside table. Realizing that the snail has been eating the paper at night she experiments with feeding it flower petals. Through trial and error Bailey learns how to care for her new companion. The snail moves from a flower pot to a full terrarium, graduates from being fed decayed petals to Portobello mushroom slices – and Bailey’s observations begin in earnest (the serious research would begin years later). Eating habits, slime, reproduction, predators – there is much more to a snail’s life than you have ever cared to imagine. Even snail sex is unexpectedly intriguing.

During the summer months, if conditions become too dry, windy, or hot, or if food supplies are limited, a snail will go into a kind of dormancy called estivation. It climbs up a plant, tree, or wall to be away from the earth’s heat and beyond reach of predators or floodwaters. Finding a safe place, it attaches itself firmly with mucus, usually with the shell opening facing upward, which may alert it to weather changes. Then it seals up its entrance with a temporary door made of mucus. This storm door, called an epiphragm, protects it from shifts in temperature and humidity. A snail may estivate for weeks or months, or even several years.

… Their [an epiphragm’s] design is specific to a snail’s species and to its local climate conditions. They may be thin and simple or thick and elaborate. Strategically located breathing holes may be incorporated, or they may be permeable to air. There is quite n art to the construction of these little doors, and justly so. Despite their temporary nature, a good door in severe weather makes the difference between life and death for a snail. An epiphragm is also personal, and its statement is definitive: the snail is home but is not accepting visitors.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s book is distinguished by a complete absence of background noise.  Her prose is built on silence.  She transports the reader into her recovery room, – where there is no television, computer or cellphone.  Visitors feel like an intrusion on our solitude, interrupting the rhythm of our day-to-day routine.  I felt somewhat resentful towards anything that took my attention away from what was happening inside the terrarium.

Completely engrossing, and often soothing, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a monument to restraint.  Equally intriguing as what Bailey tells us is what she chooses not to.  Her illness is left unidentified until the epilogue, when it could easily have carried the narrative. It is the reason she was bedridden, unable to tolerate bright lights or loud noises, or to sit up for even short periods of time. But that was not the story she decided to tell. Instead she focused on another life which she came to see as a kindred spirit. The result is beautiful and evocative, the rare book written with scientific precision and a touch of poetry.

Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself he chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
Whole Treasure.

– William Cowper, from “The Snail”, 1731

(Wonderful quotes like this one are used as chapter headings throughout the book).

Publisher:  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 56512 606 0

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