Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

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 understanding 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. 

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One of our members suggested this title years ago when we were still sticking to works of Fiction. I have to admit that the title seemed a little strange and not very inviting so I rather forgot about it until I was actively looking for Non-Fiction titles to offer the group. At that point I read the blurb and thought that it could be an interesting read because we had just finished Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Of course, Will’s disability is purely physical and permanent, with no hope of recovery, whilst Elisabeth has the agony of possible recovery and mental fatigue to overcome. She does so in the most intriguing way.

The author recounts her experiences of falling ill during a trip to Europe in only the vaguest terms, which helps to convey how ill she was feeling at the time. She describes flu-like symptoms and I was rather shocked to discover that she was allowed to travel whilst she was so obviously ill. Of course, this was in the days before Swine Flu, Avian Flu and all the other horrors that have zipped around the globe courtesy of air travel. Somehow she makes it home and then does not recover as expected. We join her when she has already been bed-ridden for some time and has been moved to Maine to be cared for and, hopefully, recover.

We learn very little about the time before the snail enters her life, and not much more detail of her day-to-day existence once it arrives. We are not presented with lists of prescriptions, practical details or daily obstacles to normal existence, such as how she goes to the bathroom. Instead, everything is focused on her observations of the snail, an unintended visitor from the woods outside her window. Due to her mental fatigue and oversensitivity to sensory input, the snail’s slow and quiet life fits in to her own pace of living. At first she merely observes its behavior, but then she begins to interact with it and use it as a focus for her daily life. She cares for the snail in ways that she can no longer care for herself and is fascinated by everything it does. She follows its meanderings around her room and tries to improve its environment by providing it with a suitable home and food, delighting in its apparent enjoyment of mushrooms.

As we follow the snail’s progress the author includes information about its anatomy, physiology and behavior, all learnt once she had recovered enough to sit up and read. If there is anything you ever wondered about snails, this is the book to answer your question in a direct and easily understood manner. Whilst Elisabeth does not shy away from using biological terminology, she communicates scientific information very clearly and in a way that shows her total delight at the wonders of such a tiny miracle of nature. She is clearly overjoyed by the complexity and beauty displayed by such a supposedly boring and insignificant animal and wants to share that wonder with everyone who reads the book.

I found this delightful because it resonates with my own feelings about the natural world. I have always loved to understand why things do what they do, so I trained as a scientist, but my choice of Biology as my main area of study is directly linked to the sense of wonder I feel when I observe the details of the world around me. Yes, I am that strange person who is actually happy to see a live skunk foraging on the side of the road as I drive home from work (and posts about it on Facebook!). I am also the person who went to Vancouver Aquarium twice in one holiday because they had a newborn Beluga whale. Perhaps it is no surprise that I used to teach high school Biology and I am married to a professional biologist who is obsessed with keeping reptiles.
I find nature both wondrous and relaxing, especially when I can get outside and experience it, so being trapped inside is a nightmare for me. I was once badly injured in a car accident and could only move with great difficulty, but I could at least get outside into our garden for brief excursions. I would hate to be trapped in my bed for a prolonged period as the author was. Her confinement was made crueler because she could not even read or listen to music to pass the time and escape her immediate environment. However, she does not whine or moan about her situation, even though there is no promise of recovery. I found this inspiring and was profoundly happy to discover that she did eventually become able to go outside and say goodbye to her tiny savior.

Edited to: add this image of the Japanese edition cover with its amazing 'snail' marks in the dust jacket.

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