'The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating'

The slow and steady snail may have long figured out that evolution is not a race. Nattanan Zia/Shutterstock

Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s exceptional memoir, “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” is as poignant and beautifully written as it is scientifically fascinating. Felled by a mysterious illness, bedridden and utterly drained of energy, Bailey finds herself suddenly cut off from what had been a rich life full of friends, work, hobbies and travel.

“Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties,” writes Bailey, who couldn’t so much as sit up in bed. With damage to her autonomic nervous system and hardly the strength to roll over, Bailey had become the exhausted captive of her own broken body. “It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour, yet days slipped silently past.”

At some point in the course of her illness, having been moved from her own home to a studio apartment where she could receive the care she required, a friend visited with an unexpected gift: a woodland snail, plucked spontaneously from a forest path, in a terra cotta pot of field violets.

Thus begin Bailey’s enchanting observations of a creature most of us either overlook or try to drive out of our gardens.

Soon after arriving in a flowerpot, her tiny companion is moved to a large terrarium, where it goes about its life in a miniature world furnished with ferns, mosses, a blue mussel shell for a water dish, and a steady diet of portobello mushrooms. The more closely she observes her gastropod companion, the more her curiosity grows. Awakening in the middle of the night, Bailey can actually hear “the comforting sound of the snail’s miniscule munching.” The snail’s pace proves to be a perfect fit for Bailey’s diminished energy, and the creature becomes the primary focus of her convalescence.

“As the snail’s world grew more familiar, my own human world became less so; my species was so large, so rushed, and so confusing. I found myself preoccupied with the energy level of my visitors, and I started to observe them in the same detail with which I observed the snail... Whereas the energy of my human visitors wore me out, the snail inspired me.”

Much like the creature that inspired it, readers shouldn’t be fooled by the diminutive size of “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.” Bailey’s astute and witty observations about both snails and humans, the scientific information and gastropod trivia she offers (snails have thousands of teeth, estivate and hibernate, and many are hermaphrodites), and the germane passages she shares from early scientists, poets, naturalists and malacologists provide plenty to meditate on.

This lovely book shows how a change in perspective and pace, whether elected or forced as in Bailey’s case, can spark life-affirming curiosity and amplify our appreciation of the natural world. Through the lens of a seemingly simple woodland snail, we learn how wonderfully complex our world and its inhabitants are, and are reminded of how much we miss when we forget to slow down. This exceptional book will astonish and captivate you.