It was the cover and title that first arrested my amble through the shelves of my local library “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating”. A the drawing of a common woodland snail trailing across the word ‘wild’ and peering with interest towards the word ‘eating’ immediately below. Am I a closet gastropodaphilic? No. It just grabbed me, the way some books are wont to do and I added it to my pile of possible reads and went on my way.
I read the book in one sitting – thoroughly enchanted from page one until the end.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s “healthy life had been full of activity, filled with friends, family, and work; the pleasures of gardening, hiking, and sailing”(10) and many other things besides until after a trip to Europe, she was laid low by a virus and she is rendered completely bedridden for (at least) a year. If like me you think ‘bedridden’ and imagine spending most of your day in bed, perhaps with a book or sitting up with your typewriter, think again, “I would slowly roll from my right side over to my left side. This simple act caused my heart to beat wildly and erratically, but the reward was a whole new vista” (42)
However it is through this forced stillness that she becomes so intimately familiar with a snail that a friend brought to her and dropped into a potted violet before going on her way. At first Bailey is resentful – it wasn’t right that this snail’s life was disrupted and now she was responsible for it. Yet, over the course of the next few days she became very interested in it’s movements, not the least for small square holes that it would leave in envelopes and postcards that lay on her bedside table.
Realizing that she would need to feed the creature (something other than the bits of envelope it was foraging) she put some flower petals in the dish of the plant where the snail had begun its life with her “The snail was awake. It made its way down the side of the pot and investigated the offering with great interest and then began to eat one of the blossoms. A petal started to disappear at a barely discernible rate. I listened carefully. I could hear it eating. The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously. I watched, transfixed, as over the course of an hour the snail meticulously ate an entire purple petal for dinner.” (12)
With beautiful writing Bailey takes us with her over the course of the year with a naturalists approach to snails all the while introducing the most fascinating information about these seemingly humble creatures.
“As I skimmed slowly along, reading a little bit each day, I found that every scientific field, from biology and physiology to ecology and paleontology, was packed with insights on gastropods. The abundance of detail was astonishing, ranging from their complex teeth patters to the biochemistry of their slime making and intimate details of their species-specific love lives. Yet even with The Mollusca’s many volumes, a certain perspective on snail life was missing. Then I discovered the nineteenth-century naturalists, intrepid souls who thought nothing of spending countless hours in the field observing their tiny subjects. I also came across poets and writers who had each, at some point in their life, become intrigued by the life of a snail.
In the fourth century BC, in the History of Animals, Aristotle noted that snail teeth are ‘sharp, and small, and delicate.’ My snail possessed around 2,640 teeth so I’d add the word plentiful to Aristotle’s description. ” (48-50)
2,640 teeth! On a woodland snail! Now I know -smiles-
I LOVE this book.Needless to say this is one of those books that I recommend to virtually anyone whether they are interested in the natural world or not. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is remarkable journey with someone who is forced to spend a year avidly observing the life of a creature that in this day and age is often completely overlooked.
Seeing my joyful face at the end of the book, having been inundated with quotes like the one shared above, my husband said, “You’re going to want a snail now, aren’t you?” and he was right, but I resisted and am instead trying to convert my garden to a wildlife paradise. (in the middle of a town in suburbia)
If you want to buy a copy of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating from Amazon please feel free to follow the link or purchase a copy from your favorite book store.