The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

“SURVIVAL,” Elisabeth Tova Bailey writes, “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.” In her case, the key to survival lay in the sound of a tiny mouth munching.

When a mysterious virus and long-undiagnosed illness keeps her debilitated and bedridden, a friend brings Bailey a cheerful pot of wild violets and with it an unassuming woodland snail. She immediately feels a sense of kinship with the snail — both of them were transplanted from their natural environments, both of them were now confined — and she soon loses (or perhaps the more appropriate word is finds) herself in the creature’s tentative forays first around her nightstand and eventually around its terrarium home.

With a naturalist’s curiosity, Bailey dives into a wealth of gastropod literature. She fills her chapters with fascinating snail biology (They have thousands of teeth! They can mate with themselves!), ultimately dedicating equal if not greater space to the inner workings of her slimy friend than to the details of her own life. This mix of old-fashioned observation and personal reflection offers a refreshing balance to what might have been another self-indulgent illness memoir. The depth of this restorative companionship becomes so great that when the snail goes temporarily missing, a panicked Bailey realizes that she has become “almost more attached to the snail than to [her] own tenuous life.” Where fellow humans fail, it’s the snail who “[keeps] the isolation at bay . . . [her] spirit from evaporating.” In truth, it saves her life.

This isn’t a book about answering big questions, or solving hard problems. It’s a book about the healing powers of connection. It’s about a journey, a journey back from the brink. I read the story while on my own journey, hiking through the mountains of Montana, walking many miles in a day, watching the glacier-cut country change shape over each new pass. At first I worried it might be hard to relate to a world defined by the circumference of a small, white room. The landscape I roamed seemed limitless. My sore muscles and fatigue were the result of too much movement rather than too little. I felt more like a wolverine than a snail. But nature is humbling on both the largest and smallest of scales. You don’t have to be in the wilderness any more than you have to stay in bed to be awed, to be jolted or slowly prodded back into the world of the living, to feel connected. Look big enough or small enough, and all things start to take on a familiar geometry. Nebulas swirling in space, the tight twist of the double helix, the “marvelous spiral” of a snail’s perfectly curled shell. Size and distance become variable, unimportant. Bailey acknowledges that “Snails may seem like tiny, even insignificant things compared to the wars going on around the world,” but through her eyes we are reminded that nothing, no matter how small, is without significance.