The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating | Elisabeth Tova Bailey

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Think not of the amount to be accomplished, the difficulties to be overcome, or the end to be attained, but set earnestly at the little task at your elbow, letting that be sufficient for the day. —SIR WILLIAM OSLER, physician (1849–1919)

How does one do justice to a small book about snails and illness?

I can already hear the many yawns from here. And I can see your fingers hovering over the mouse ready to click and move on. But please dont.

Stay a while, slow down and take a moment to reflect on those much smaller and those less fortunate than us. That’s what Elisabeth Tova Bailey does in her delightful book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.

Those of us with illnesses are the holders of the silent fears of those with good health.

Bailey was struck down 20 years ago by a mysterious, life-threatening illness. She has been bed-ridden for long stretches of time, completely immobile and therefore cut off from the world.

In such a situation I defy anyone to not become overwhelmed by futility.
However a chance arrival in her bedroom changed Bailey’s life. A visitor brought her a pot of violets from the nearby forest…and a snail.

During the night, Bailey was disturbed by an unusual sound. She could hear the snail eating.

The tiny, intimate sound of the snail’s eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space. 

So begins a beautiful tale of co-existence and understanding.

Throughout The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Bailey uses examples from poetry, literature and science to bring forth the nature of her snail. Each little nugget is revealed with care and circumspection. Watching her snail, Bailey comes to terms with her own illness.

If life mattered to the snail and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on. 

This is a book that deserves to be read slowly, with pleasure.

We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn’t feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what time I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive.

I have my own snail story.

On a camping trip a number of years ago I also heard a wild snail eating. I had carried my road atlas into the tent with me one night to check the route for the next day. When we turned out the lights, I left the book lying next to my pillow. In the middle of the night, I was woken by the sound of quiet chomping. A torchlight search revealed nothing and I assumed it was a small creature outside the tent munching on the grass or some leaves.

The next day when I opened my road atlas, I discovered an inch long chunk taken out of one side of the book. It had clearly been chewed by something. At the time I had no idea which type of creature it might have been. It was only as I was reading this book, that I realised what it was that ate my book all those years ago.

In a work that beautifully demonstrates the rewards of closely observing nature, Elisabeth Bailey shares an inspiring and intimate story of her uncommon encounter with a Neohelix albolabris —a common woodland snail.

While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches a wild snail that has taken up residence on her nightstand. As a result, she discovers the solace and sense of wonder that this mysterious creature brings and comes to a greater understanding of her own confined place in the world.

Intrigued by the snail’s molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making, hydraulic locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal. 

Told with wit and grace, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a remarkable journey of survival and resilience, showing us how a small part of the natural world illuminates our own human existence and provides an appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.

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