Between the Covers

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

Elisbeth Tova Bailey

While visiting a small European town, Elisabeth Tova Bailey is floored by a vicious flu. Flying back home to the US, she consoles herself by thinking, “the doctors will know how to fix me.” But the doctors do not.

An exploration on how it is to be ill for over 20 years, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a surprisingly uplifting memoir. The focus delicately alternates between the author’s devastating difficulties to her unexpectedly intriguing companion, a snail.

Rendered a “horizontal person” by a mysterious virus disrupting her autonomic nervous system, Bailey cannot sit, stand or walk. As she lies immobile and marooned in a studio room, she is “flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness and intolerable loss.” With a future so bleak, what is there to look forward to?

A former gardener and keen hiker, Bailey is buoyed by glimpses of nature outside her window. One day a friend digs up a clump of wild violets, puts them in a flowerpot and brings them in. Travelling with the violets is a single wild snail.

So begins the author’s fascination with her tiny helix-shelled visitor, as it explores and adapts to its new circumstances. She watches how the snail balances like an acrobat, lunging, stretching, inspecting, eating, gliding off a little further every night but always returning to sleep in its pot during the day.

After upgrading the snail’s pot-bound accommodation into a glass-sided terrarium furnished with snail-friendly plants and decaying leaf litter, Bailey begins to research snails – or gastropods – layering her writing with rich scientific observations, snail-inspired haiku, eccentric works of fiction, and tips on keeping this “odd pet”.

Winner of the 2010 US Natural History Literature Prize, Bailey’s Zen-like study of nature in miniature is set against the gigantic hardships facing the chronically ill. Healing occurs at a snail’s pace. As with others in her situation, she realises she has become invisible and insignificant in a frantic, loud, modern world, emerging only to make arduous visits to her doctor from her own “distant planet”.

Like the remarkably evolved snail, the author learns about boundaries, how to live within them and how to slide over them. By zeroing in on the interconnectedness and intricate wonders of the seemingly ordinary, from the tiniest snail’s egg to mass extinctions and environmental upheavals shaping the present and the past, Bailey reminds us not to take anything for granted.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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