The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is an exquisite meditation on the restorative connection between nature and humans. Bailey, isolated and immobile due to a debilitating illness, finds herself in the company of a woodland snail. The snail becomes both her mirror and her mentor. By observing the snail through all the phases of the day, Bailey reflects on her own constrictions of mobility, placement, and relationships.
The writing is pristine and clear, with sentences of stunning lyrical beauty that I read over and over again. The chapters move along through the months of Bailey’s illness, made bearable now by the presence of the snail. Researching the genealogy and habits of the snail, Bailey finds evidence of the richness of its existence and proof that she herself is still living, and as vibrantly and with as much persistence as her tiny companion: “The life of a snail is as full of tasty food, comfortable beds of sorts, and a mix of pleasant and not-so-pleasant adventures as that of anyone I know.”
Interspersed with excerpts about snails from studies, essays, and poetry, and plumped up with tales of snail fascination dating back to the Romans, and up through Darwin, Edgar Allen Poe, and including modern biophiliac Edward O. Wilson, Bailey’s slim book is as richly layered as the soil she lays down in the snail’s terrarium: loamy, potent, and regenerative.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating reminded me of other books in which authors focus in on a unique representative of the wild and find profound lessons for their own human lives, including Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. In terms of the beauty of its writing and the breadth of its inspiration (so much can be found in the life of a tiny snail), The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating matches J. A. Baker’s splendid book on the year he spent following a falcon, The Peregrine.
These books demonstrate that when we stop looking at ourselves (cease the obsession with our own lives) and take the time to look — really look — at what is going on around us, we benefit tremendously, in heart, mind and soul. When a snail helps a desperately sick woman feel connected with life — and so not yet ready to give up on it — I know that my own moments spent reflecting upon a blue-eyed dragonfly clinging to a tennis net or a bright yellow spider sitting fat in its web or a pair of city sparrows bathing in an ice-broken puddle can restore my own tired soul to a state of wild and profound gratitude.