The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating


By Elisabeth Tova Bailey

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Winner of The Saroyan International Prize for Writing, the John Burroughs Medal, and the National Outdoor Book Award in Natural History Literature
“Brilliant.” —The New York Review of Books

“Exquisite.” —The Huffington Post
“Magical.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

In a work that beautifully demonstrates the rewards of closely observing nature, Elisabeth Tova Bailey shares an inspiring and intimate story of her 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 understanding of her own place in the world.

Intrigued by the snail’s molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making, hydraulic locomotion, and courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, offering a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal.

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 can illuminate our own human existence, while providing an appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.


Part 1


Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.

from Letters to a Young Poet, 1927


at my feet
when did you get here

—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.


sleeping and rising
always with your shell!
oh snail

—KOBAYASHI ISSA (1763–1828)

AROUND DINNERTIME I was surprised to see that the snail was awake. The visible part of its body was nearly two inches long from head to tail, and moist. The rest of it was hidden in the attached inch-high brown shell, which it balanced gracefully on its back. I watched as it moved slowly down the side of the flowerpot. As it glided along, it gently waved the tentacles on its head.

Throughout the evening the snail explored the sides of the pot and the dish beneath. Its leisurely pace was mesmerizing. I wondered if it would wander off during the night. Perhaps I'd never see it again, and the snail problem would simply vanish.

But when I woke the next morning, the snail was back up in the pot, tucked into its shell, asleep beneath a violet leaf. The night before, I had propped an envelope containing a letter against the base of the lamp. Now I noticed a mysterious square hole just below the return address. This was baffling. How could a hole—a square hole—appear in an envelope overnight? Then I thought of the snail and its evening activity. The snail was clearly nocturnal. It must have some kind of teeth, and it wasn't shy about using them.

MY HEALTHY LIFE HAD been full of activity, filled with friends, family, and work; the pleasures of gardening, hiking, and sailing; and the familiar humdrum of daily routines: making breakfast, exploring the woods, going to work, reading a book, getting up to get something. Now, getting up to get something, anything—that alone would be an accomplishment. From where I lay, all of life was out of reach.

As the months drifted by, it was hard to remember why the endless details of a healthy life and a good job had seemed so critical. It was odd to see my friends overwhelmed by their busy lives, when they could do all the things I could not, without a second thought.

Whereas the future had once beckoned with many intriguing paths, now there was just one impossible route. So it was into the past, with its rich sedimentary layers, that my mind would go instead. A breath of wind through an open window stirred the memory of crossing Penobscot Bay on the bowsprit of a schooner. With the simple wish to brush my teeth came thoughts of my farmhouse bathroom, with its window view of the old apple trees and the poppy garden. It had amused me to see the laundry hanging on its line over the poppies; their yellows, oranges, and reds accented the blue sheets and the nightgowns, which reached with their arms down toward the flowers.

ON THE SECOND MORNING of the snail's stay, I found another square hole, this time in a list I was keeping on a scrap of paper. As each successive morning arrived, so did more holes. Their square shape continued to perplex me. Friends were surprised and amused to receive postcards with an arrow pointing at a hole and my scrawled note: "Eaten by my snail."

It dawned on me that perhaps the snail needed some real food. Letters and envelopes were probably not its typical diet. A few long-gone flowers were in a vase by my bed. One evening I put some of the withered blossoms in the dish beneath the pot of violets. The snail was awake. It made its way down the side of the pot and investigated the offering with great interest and then began to eat one of the blossoms. A petal started to disappear at a barely discernible rate. I listened carefully. I could hear it eating. The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously. I watched, transfixed, as over the course of an hour the snail meticulously ate an entire purple petal for dinner.

The tiny, intimate sound of the snail's eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space. It also pleased me that I could recycle the withered flowers by my bed to sustain a small creature in need. I might prefer my salad fresh, but the snail preferred its salad half-dead, for not once had it nibbled on the live violet plants that provided its sleeping shelter. One has to respect the preferences of another creature, no matter its size, and I did so gladly.

THE STUDIO APARTMENT WHERE I was staying had lots of windows and a beautiful view of a salt marsh. But the windows were far from where I lay, and I could not sit up to see out. Though they brought me light each day, the world they framed was beyond my reach. Unlike my own farmhouse, which was full of color, the walls and ceiling of this room where I woke each morning were entirely white—I felt trapped inside a stark white box.

During the earlier years of my illness, I had spent countless hours on a daybed in my 1830s farmhouse, staring up at the hand-hewn beams overhead. Their rich, golden brown hues soothed my soul; the knots told a history of branches and long-ago wilderness; the square-headed nails sticking out here and there once had purpose. Each room in the house was trimmed in an old-fashioned milk-paint color. In the room where I lay, the trim was a deep blue, and I could turn my head to see red in the kitchen, green in the bathroom, and a calm gray in the front room.

The daybed at home was right next to a window so that I could look out without sitting up. In the summer my perennial gardens were in view, untended but still thriving. I would watch for the arrival of friends as they came by foot, bike, or car, bringing stories to tell, and I'd wave them off as they set out again. When I woke each morning at dawn, several cats would be prowling the field. I'd hear my neighbors drive off to work, one by one. The slant of sun would slowly steepen toward midday, then lengthen as it slowly fell away. One by one my neighbors returned. Evening settled over the field, the cats took up their hunting in the long grass, and finally night descended.

Though I was grateful for the care I was receiving here in this white room, I was not at home. It was hard enough that my body was a bizarre and bewildering place, but I was homesick as well. I was far from the things that delighted me, the wild woods that sustained me, and the social network that enriched me.

Survival often depends on a specific focus: a relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility. Or something more ephemeral: the way the sun passes through the hard, seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket, or how the wind, invisible but for its wake, is so loud one can hear it through the insulated walls of a house.

FOR SEVERAL WEEKS THE snail lived in the flowerpot just inches from my bed, sleeping beneath the violet leaves by day and exploring by night. Each morning while I was having breakfast it climbed back into the pot to sleep in the little hollow it had made in the dirt. Though the snail usually slept through the days, it was comforting to glance toward the violets and see its small circular shape tucked under a leaf.



    NATIONAL OUTDOOR BOOK AWARD FOR 2010 in Natural History Literature

    BOOKS FOR A BETTER LIFE AWARD, FINALIST for Inspirational Memoir


    BEST BOOKS OF 2010: MORE OF THE BEST, Library Journal

    GREAT TITLES TO ADD TO THE NYT BEST OF 2010, Huffington Post


    “Beautiful.” —Edward O. Wilson

    “Universal, deeply felt, and with an enormously generous soul, the gently told story grants readers a heightened appreciation for the ever-shrinking, ever-fascinating, secretive parts of our unkempt world.” —Alexandra Fuller for The Daily Beast

    “How interesting can a snail be? Entirely captivating, as it turns out. [Bailey] is a marvelous writer, and the marriage of science and poetic mysticism that characterizes this small volume is magical.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

    “[Bailey] found comfort in an unlikely companion--a tiny snail, whose micro-doings are the source of a surprising philosophy.” —Entertainment Weekly

    “An exquisite meditation on the restorative connection between nature and humans. . . Bailey's slim book is as richly layered as the soil she lays down in the snail's terrarium: loamy, potent, and regenerative.” —The Huffington Post

    “[A] small, quiet masterpiece, already destined to become a classic.” —Washington Times

    “A spare, beautifully quirky grace note of a book.” —Family Circle

    “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.” —

    “This elegant little gem is a triumph.”—Maine Sunday Telegram

On Sale
Sep 6, 2016
Page Count
208 pages
Algonquin Books

Elisabeth Tova Bailey

About 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.

Learn more about this author