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The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

4.0 54
by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

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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,


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 under standing 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.

Editorial Reviews

Who would have imagined that a tiny, slow (literally snail-paced) forest creature could become the inspiration of a fascinating book? Elisabeth Tova Bailey's encounter with Neohelix albolabris, the common woodland snail, began with a friend's inexplicable sickbed gift, but escalates pleasantly into an encounter as enlightening as it is entertaining. (Who knew, for instance, that these diminutive slugs expend a third of their energy each day producing an impressive variety of slime products?) The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating begins as a surprise and ends as a revelation.

People Magazine
"The author found solace--and good material--in watching a snail." --People magazine
"Though illness may rob us of vitality, sometimes it can also help bring us understanding---albeit in improbable disguises . . . Perhaps there's something to be said for moving at a snail's pace." --NPR.org
From the Publisher

"The author found solace--and good material--in watching a snail." --People magazine

"Though illness may rob us of vitality, sometimes it can also help bring us understanding---albeit in improbable disguises . . . Perhaps there's something to be said for moving at a snail's pace." --NPR.org

Library Journal
Imagine quiet broken by a snail eating. With autoimmune dysautonomia and chronic fatigue syndrome resulting from mitochondrial disease, Bailey has involuntarily spent over 20 years coping with restricted movement. This intimate account of her snail-like life challenges readers to seek calm in their own lives. (LJ8/10)

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
In this quiet but moving debut, essayist Bailey chronicles a year during which her fascination with the simple life of a snail kept isolation at bay and gave purpose to her life. At age 34, the author was struck by a neurological disorder while vacationing in the Alps, and her condition rapidly deteriorated as her autonomic nervous system became dysfunctional: "all functions not consciously directed . . . had gone haywire." In order to receive care, she was moved from the Maine farmhouse where she had lived with her dog to a bare, one-room studio apartment where she was isolated from friends and family. The snail entered her life by chance when a visiting friend potted a violet and brought it to her, including the snail that had been sitting beneath its leaves. Bailey watched intently as the creature began to explore its new environment. Since it was nocturnal and her sleep was intermittent, the author had time to observe the animal eating, noting the "tiny, intimate sound" as it chomped on dead leaves from the violet plant or mushroom slices that she gave it. When her caregiver found the appropriate empty space, her friend helped to convert it into a roomy terrarium full of native plants from the snail's own woods. Although she had not been familiar with the snail's habits before welcoming her new companion, Bailey learned about the species through careful observation and the few things she was able to read during her recovery. Watching the snail was not only absorbing, but as the author was drawn into its "peaceful and solitary world," she was soothed and left with a profound sense of how "life itself continues to evolve."A charming, delicate meditation on the meaning of life. Agent: Ellen Levine/Ellen Levine Literary Agency

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt


Viruses are embedded into the very fabric of all life.
- Luis P. Villarreal, "The Living and Dead Chemical Called a Virus," 2005

From my hotel window I look over the deep glacial lake to the foothills and the Alps beyond. Twilight vanishes the hills into the mountains; then all is lost to the dark.

After breakfast, I wander the cobbled village streets. The frost is out of the ground, and huge bushes of rosemary bask fragrantly in the sun. I take a trail that meanders up the steep, wild hills past flocks of sheep. High on an outcrop, I lunch on bread and cheese. Late in the afternoon along the shore, I find ancient pieces of pottery, their edges smoothed by waves and time. I hear that a virulent flu is sweeping this small town.

A few days pass and then comes a delirious night. My dreams are disturbed by the comings and goings of ferries. Passengers call into the dark, startling me awake. Each time I fall back into sleep, the lake's watery sound pulls at me. Something is wrong with my body. Nothing feels right.

In the morning I am weak and can't think. Some of my muscles don't work. Time becomes strange. I get lost; the streets go in too many directions. The days drift past in confusion. I pack my suitcase, but for some reason it's impossible to lift. It seems to be stuck to the floor. Somehow I get to the airport. Seated next to me on the transatlantic flight is a sick surgeon; he sneezes and coughs continually. My rare, much-needed vacation has not gone as planned. I'll be okay; I just want to get home.

After a flight connection in Boston, I land at my small New England airport near midnight. In the parking lot, as I bend over to dig my car out of the snow, the shovel turns into a crutch that I use to push myself upright. I don't know how I get home. Arising the next morning, I immediately faint to the floor. Ten days of fever with a pounding headache. Emergency room visits. Lab tests. I am sicker than I have ever been. Childhood pneumonia, college mononucleosis - those were nothing compared to this.

A few weeks later, resting on the couch, I spiral into a deep darkness, falling farther and farther away until I am impossibly distant. I cannot come back up; I cannot reach my body. Distant sound of an ambulance siren. Distant sound of doctors talking. My eyelids heavy as boulders. I try to open them to a slit, just for a few seconds, but they close against my will. All I can do is breathe.

The doctors will know how to fix me. They will stop this. I keep breathing. What if my breath stops? I need to sleep, but I am afraid to sleep. I try to watch over myself; if I go to sleep, I might never wake up again.

1. Field Violets
at my feetwhen did you get here?snail
- Kobayashi Issa (1763 - 1828)

In early spring, a friend went for a walk in the woods and, glancing down at the path, saw a snail. Picking it up, she held it gingerly in the palm of her hand and carried it back toward the studio where I was convalescing. She noticed some field violets on the edge of the lawn. Finding a trowel, she dug a few up, then planted them in a terra-cotta pot and placed the snail beneath their leaves. She brought the pot into the studio and put it by my bedside.

"I found a snail in the woods. I brought it back and it's right here beneath the violets."

"You did? Why did you bring it in?"

"I don't know. I thought you might enjoy it."

"Is it alive?"

She picked up the brown acorn-sized shell and looked at it. "I think it is."

Why, I wondered, would I enjoy a snail? What on earth would I do with it? I couldn't get out of bed to return it to the woods. It was not of much interest, and if it was alive, the responsibility - especially for a snail, something so uncalled for - was overwhelming.

My friend hugged me, said good-bye, and drove off.

At age thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe, I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms. I had thought I was indestructible. But I wasn't. If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn't. Medical specialists at several major clinics couldn't diagnose the infectious culprit. I was in and out of the hospital for months, and the complications were life threatening. An experimental drug that became available stabilized my condition, though it would be several grueling years to a partial recovery and a return to work. My doctors said the illness was behind me, and I wanted to believe them. I was ecstatic to have most of my life back.

But out of the blue came a series of insidious relapses, and once again, I was bedridden. Further, more sophisticated testing showed that the mitochondria in my cells no longer functioned correctly and there was damage to my autonomic nervous system; all functions not consciously directed, including heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, had gone haywire. The drug that had previously helped now caused dangerous side effects; it would soon be removed from the market.

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. Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness, and intolerable loss.

Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties. It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour, yet days slipped silently past. Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

I had been moved to a studio apartment where I could receive the care I needed. My own farmhouse, some fifty miles away, was closed up. I did not know if or when I'd ever make it home again. For now, my only way back was to close my eyes and remember. I could see the early spring there, the purple field violets - like those at my bedside - running rampant through the yard. And the fragrant small pink violets that I had planted in the little woodland garden to the north of my house - they, too, would be in bloom. Though not usually hardy this far north, somehow they survived. In my mind I could smell their sweetness.

Before my illness, my dog, Brandy, and I had often wandered the acres of forest that stretched beyond the house to a hidden, mountain-fed brook. The brook's song of weather and season followed us as we crisscrossed its channel over partially submerged boulders. On the trail home, in the boggiest of spots, perched on tiny islands of root and moss, I found diminutive wild white violets, their throats faintly striped with purple.

These field violets in the pot at my bedside were fresh and full of life, unlike the usual cut flowers brought by other friends. Those lasted just a few days, leaving murky, odoriferous vase water. In my twenties I had earned my living as a gardener, so I was glad to have this bit of garden right by my bed. I could even water the violets with my drinking glass.

But what about this snail? What would I do with it? As tiny as it was, it had been going about its day when it was picked up. What right did my friend and I have to disrupt its life? Though I couldn't imagine what kind of life a snail might lead.

I didn't remember ever having noticed any snails on my countless hikes in the woods. Perhaps, I thought, looking at the nondescript brown creature, it was precisely because they were so inconspicuous. For the rest of the day the snail stayed inside its shell, and I was too worn out from my friend's visit to give it another thought.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“With warmth and intelligence, Bailey observes this little mollusk at her bedside. Readers will find her mental journey remarkable and her courage irresistible. I am very taken with this small book.” —Maxine Kumin

“If rapt attention is a kind of prayer, then this is a prayerful book. Bailey pays homage to splendors small and humble enough to fit inside a terrarium beside her sickbed.” —Scott Russell Sanders, author of A Private History of Awe

“Beautiful.” —Edward O. Wilson

“I love [The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating] with all my heart . . . It’s moving and beautiful . . . funny and sweet and wise and profound.” —Jane Hamilton

Meet the Author

Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s essays and short stories have been published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, the Missouri Review, Northwest Review, and the Sycamore Review. The hardcover edition of The Sound of Wild Snail Eating was a Barnes & Noble Discover title, an Indie Next Pick, and a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Bailey has received several Pushcart Prize nominations (in addition to the awards listed above), and the essay on which this book is based received a Notable Essay Listing in Best American Essays. She is on the Writers Council for the National Writing Project. Winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she lives in Maine.

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Sound of a Wild Snail Eating 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
SAHARATEA More than 1 year ago
"...the snail had emerged from its shell into the alien territory of my room, with no clue as to where it was or how it had arrived; the lack of vegetation and the desertlike surroundings must have seemed strange. The snail and I were both living in altered landscapes not of our choosing; I figured we shared a sense of loss and displacement." Elisabeth Tova Bailey was in her mid-thirties when struck with a mysterious illness that soon led to her complete incapacitation. Without knowing the cause, much less the cure or the course that it might take, the disease was a frightening visitor. One day, a friend stops by with a rather odd gift. A snail, from out in the yard. First placed in a flower pot and eventually a terrarium, the snail becomes Bailey's constant companion. Because of her lack of mobility and energy, much of her time was spent observing the creature. You might think this would be dull, or worse, that you'd be stuck listening to someone bleakly describing their every physical complaint. Not so. This book has very little to do with health issues and far more to do with curiosity and resilience. Bailey is not a complainer, actual details of her health are few and without self-pity. She doesn't simply give up either, she makes clear she wants to fight this unknown assailant on her life. That she does so with the help of a small snail is astounding. The first surprise is that snails have a daily routine. They have certain times to eat and sleep and travel. They often return to the same place to sleep, and they sleep on their side. (!!!) As she watches the daily activities of the snail, she manages to study research on snails in general and in detail. Turns out snail research is pretty deep...volumes have been written on every tiny detail. As in: snails have teeth, 2200+ of them! Seriously, if they were bigger you'd think twice about stepping on one. They also have a special talent for when the going gets tough in their little world: they start a process called estivation. It's not hibernation (they do that too!) but instead it allows them to become dormant when the weather goes bad, or they lose their preferred food source, etc. Some snails have been known to estivate more than a few years. The process of sealing off their little shell is fascinating, and a study in insulation. Then there's the romance. Researchers have studied that too, and I won't go into too much detail, but let's just say lady snails are not complaining about romance in their life! Male snails really knock themselves out on the charm aspect. So much of the research that is out there is fascinating, and Bailey sorts through it and shares the most interesting details. This isn't just a science project for her, she sees parallels in her condition as well as the snail's. Illness took her out of her social circle, and her life seemed slow and inconsequential. And snails usually are a typical example of slow and inconsequential living: "Everything about a snail is cryptic, and it was precisely this air of mystery that first captured my interest. My own life, I realized, was becoming just as cryptic. From the severe onset of my illness and through its innumerable relapses, my place in the world has been documented more by my absence than by my presence. While close friends understood my situation, those who didn't know me well found my disappearance from work and social circles inexplicable."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is unlike anything I have read before. At first description I thought it might be odd but I like unusual things and decided to take a chance on reading this. It has bound me to it's pages! Being familiar with ill health, I can identify with the author's frustration at not being able to move from her bed. When she begins to care for a snail that was brought to her by a friend, the story takes on a very sweet aspect. I don't think I will ever see a snail again without thinking of this account. I am halfway through the book. I read a few pages at night and it is very interesting and soothing to contemplate the relationship between living things. This will be on my list of favorites to read again.
AudreyCooper More than 1 year ago
I bought this book because of its title. I work in a greenhouse and am a little sentimental about the various creatures that are often called pests. Snails, especially, intrigue me. This book really is about snails and there is a great deal of information about the complex little mollusks. But it is also a memoir by a women confined by illness to a small world and her struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome. It is a soothing narrative and one that I recommend highly to anyone who wants a relaxing read about an animal we rarely think about, or befriend.
idajo2 More than 1 year ago
Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is rife with finespun, and fascinating, detail about a "white-lipped forest snail" and its person. The small snail captured my heart from the moment s/he munched on a withered purple flower petal! I saw the snail as a lifesaver during the long days and nights the author struggled to come to terms with her devastating and debilitating illness. For those of us who love this book, the snail might well be described as a lifeSAVOR. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating changed my perception of gastropods ~ forever. I will never view snails in the same light again nor will I ever intentionally harm a snail!
gmanpma More than 1 year ago
I usually read WWII history, but the title grabbed me. A great relaxing read. Read and enjoy.
juleecm1 More than 1 year ago
I couldn't imagine enjoying a book about observing a snail. How could I have been so dumb? It's a fascinating, lovely, delicate book about a woman's horrific health problems, and how the introduction of a little, forest snail into her life allowed her to participate in something other than her illness. Her inability to even get up led to a severely restricted existence, and by quietly watching this little snail, her horizons broadened and she felt as though she was participating in life again. And guess what? You CAN hear a snail eating, if only you are quiet enough and really listen. A wonderful reminder of the powers of quiet observance and healing. Marvelous book, can't recommend it highly enough.
Drora More than 1 year ago
Will never look at snails the same way again!!! A wonderful way to turn a terrible situation to a bearable one.
KristyMcCaffrey More than 1 year ago
In her 30's, Ms. Bailey contracted an unknown virus after a trip to Europe. What seemed at first to be the flu eventually turned into a two-decade struggle with a debilitating illness, leaving her bedridden for months at a time. She acquires a snail from the woods near her house and spends hours each day observing the creature. Her insights are intriguing--how many of us know what a snail likes to eat, its favorite place to sleep, or how they reproduce? With simple, easy-to-read prose, Ms. Bailey shows us how wide the world becomes when we focus on small details. Forced to slow her life to a snail's pace, the creature becomes a kindred spirit in a most profound way. I found this book to be an unexpected treat; her illness is heartbreaking, making you feel gratitude for the good health most of us take for granted, but her observations into the snail's world shows us that we move through life so quickly, invariably missing the magic of other creatures sharing the planet with us.
AnnieBB More than 1 year ago
It's hard to imagine how one would live life if severely challenged by a devastating illness. But this book shares one woman's experience and how she found meaning and even joy in a pot of violets and a little wild snail (or two or three). This is a very satisfying read.
Amy Christiansen More than 1 year ago
Through illness, the author finds herself in possession of the time and pace to be able to observe in great detail the life and habits of a snail, and individual who, as her only true companion and connection to the world, sustains her through the worst of her illness. She peppers the text with beautiful spare poetry featuring snails, and with observations and writings of naturalists and snail specialists, including fascinating scientific tidbits of snail biology, life cycle, and evolution. A beautiful and lyrically written short work that expresses reverence for life along with rigorous science and meticulously documented references for further reading and enjoyment. Slow down the pace of your life and revel in this short introduction to an entirely new and foreign world - that of a snail.
LisaDunckley 4 months ago
This a beautifully written, little GEM of a book. The author, Elizabeth Tova Bailey, is stricken with a strange illness that has sapped her strength, she is too weak to do anything besides lie in bed. Reading, watching TV, visiting with friends—all of these are too draining for her to do. One day a friend brings her a pot of violets with—of all things—a snail in it. The mere idea of the responsibility for this is almost overwhelming for Elizabeth, but the quiet, slow, peacefulness of the snail gradually wins her over. What started as a bizarre unwanted gift became her main focus and companion. Elizabeth is an excellent observer of nature, and her growing interest in the snail leads her to learn all she can about them. The book switches back and forth between Elizabeth's history that lead up to her illness, her current life and snail story, and everything she learns about snails in general—which is fascinating. I am not a fan of snails, and this book made me want to have one as a pet. This is proof of good writing! Snails are hermaphrodites, for one thing. They can meet, mate, and both snails can later lay eggs. But if there's no love to be had, snails can be do without, and fertilize themselves and lay eggs. Elizabeth's snail lays several clutches of eggs which eventually hatch into the almost microscopic teensy new snails. Before that, the pot is exchanged for a large aquarium, and the snail's territory expanded to include a small rotten log, moss, pine needles, ferns, bark with lichens, and other materials taken from the woods outside (the natural environment of the snail). Despite no voice or mammal-type facial features, the snail is able to communicate well with regards to what it likes and doesn't like. The author describes it as a “tireless and fearless explorer” as it makes its rounds inside and out of its area. Other books, both fiction and non-fiction, are referenced. Some notables include the poem by A. A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame) who wrote about a snail named James who journeyed (with a compass) from one of a brick to the other. Another was the horrifying story The Quest for Blank Claveringi, about giant, man-eating snails who slowly but relentlessly trail their prey. Non-fiction includes everything from Aristotle's writings about snails, to an old children's book call Odd Pets. The snail's teeth, grooming habits, and food needs are charmingly discussed. The entire book is fascinating and leaves you with an appreciation for a creature that most of us ignore or even dislike. The author takes something that probably creeps most people out, and makes it downright irresistible!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lovely book by a very I'll woman on her reflections a friend brings her a snail and a pot of violets . Watching her snail gives some focus and meaning to her life as she is bedridden due to a mysterious illness. I highly recommend this book . It is a gentle look at nature and discovery of something we take for granted.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Would u say a nine year old could read it....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having had aquatic moon smails as pet when iwas a child .. I really enjoyed this little gem of a book. Ic
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I honestly don't know what to make of this. I think it's got some potential. A fairly quick read for me. The author seems to go more into scientific detail rather than the character's own life, and personally, it felt like reading a science report of some sort, which I didn't like at all. So I'm on the fence with this one.
kyohin More than 1 year ago
Each Christmas I try to find a gem of a book which will appeal to my grown daughters, and give them some food for thought. This book was perfect, and they both said they really enjoyed reading it. I'd recommend this for anyone who likes to mull over what they have consumed with their eyes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this - found it hard to put down. I was drawn by the character of the narrator and by my own curiosity about her little snail friend. A quiet story that draws you in - Enjoy!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was entertaining, touching and contains a lot if wisdom and surprising insights into our humanity and the nature of all living things. Less enjoyable for me were the countless quotes from other sources on the details of snail biology. It's not that I don't think these details interesting, or relevant, but they just didn't seem to fit with within the rest of the story. I suspect that's because the author did most of this research after her time with the snail. The poetry of this book seemed more natural and genuine than the scientific commentary.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago