THE SOUND OF A WILD SNAIL EATING by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, hardcover $18.95.
“The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, who lives in Maine, is a book I couldn’t put down. Each page I turned held some new insight, turn of phrase or fact to intrigue me. Actually, the book had me firmly in thrall before I read even the entire first page of the first chapter because it is headed by a poem by Japanese haiku master Kobayashi Issa, who lived 1763-1828: at my feet/ When did you get here?/ snail
Right away I knew I was in for a reading treat. I wasn’t disappointed. Here is a small sample: “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.
The tiny intimate sound of the snail’s eating gave me the distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.”
On one level Bailey’s book is a memoir of an illness, but it became increasingly clear as I read her writing that it went a lot deeper than that — it’s about finding meaning in life when all bets appear to be off.
Bailey’s story began years ago when she was felled by an illness that left her virtually paralyzed, unable to roll over in bed or care for herself, and dependent on the kindness of others. One day, a friend dug up a clump of wild white field violets, put them in a pot and brought them to cheer Bailey. The friend also included a snail she had found in the woods, a serendipitous choice that would affect the course of Bailey’s time of serving out the months of her illness.
Watching the snail, wondering about it, figuring out what it needed for survival was the means by which Bailey began slowly to reattach to the world, in time growing out of her illness much as a snail outgrew its shell.
Many years later when she was well enough again to write, she began to study snails, collecting facts about them, data she weaves so skillfully into her memoir I came away from the book knowing that my perception of snails had been changed forever. I learned, for example, that snails really do have teeth — lots of them, that they can “speed glide” on the slime trail they make if the situation demands it, and some snail species, in the process of mating, shoot tiny “love darts” into each other.
Reading Bailey’s book, I felt as if I had ingested sustenance for the soul, food for thought.