Book Review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Elisabeth Tova Bailey)
Reviewed by Ed Northen
Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is the winner of the John Burroughs Medal, the William Saroyan International prize for writing and National Book Award in Natural History Literature. The back cover of the book bears the description, "The Earthly Adventures of a Woman and a Gastropod." This description is appropriate but not quite complete because the adventure is more of journey and it is much more than earthly – it is transformational. I would change this statement to "The transformational journey of a woman and a gastropod" because each of them is on journey, as are all of us. While the journey of the woman and the snail are different they are also the same.
When the book begins Elisabeth is vacationing in the Alps of Switzerland, staring at a glacial lake from her hotel room and hiking on the hillsides, eating bread and cheese in a meadow. A viral flu is rapidly spreading through the village she is staying in and the next day Elisabeth is affected by it. Her mind and body do not want to cooperate with her will, yet she manages to get on a transatlantic flight and somehow get from Boston to a small new England airport and to her home. Over the period of several weeks her condition gets worse even, with all of the doctors visits, treatments, and medicines, nothing seems to break the chain of physical events affecting her body. Elisabeth spirals downward into a deep darkness, she says "I am falling farther and father away until I am impossibly distant. I cannot come back up, I cannot reach my body" the virus has affected Elisabeth's neurological system leaving her almost paralyzed. She is moved to a studio apartment and confined to a bed, barely able to move and a prisoner in her own body.
Elisabeth is a complex woman; her identity is in both the modern world and the past. She is independent, a traveler and adventurer and yet she roots herself in her family's history and heritage. She is endeared to the old rambling farmhouse built in the 1830's. She speaks of the open meadows and creek which run through her property, which now in her banished state, misses terribly. She is connected to this farm and land and remembers the variety of colors in the farmhouse rooms, making this episode of her life spent in a white, sterile solitary room even more depressing. Her bed in the apartment is not near a window, like in the old farmhouse, where she could see the a apple orchard, or the Swiss hotel where she looks out on the glacial lake. Her bed is positioned in an area of the room which does not provide for engagement with the outside world, she is sequestered, shut off. Even as the pathogen has shut her body off from her neurological system and her old life.
At first her friends come to visit. It is one of them who brings the freshly picked wildflowers in a terracotta pot and picks up the snail as an after thought and places it hidden in the leaves in the pot, thinking Elisabeth might enjoy it. Her friend drives off and Elisabeth is left alone once again, her connection with the outside world gone.
Elisabeth's modernism provides a hope that science, technology and the doctors will make her whole once again, which does not happen. But the roots of her relationship to nature and the land provide another type of inspiration. It is this innate openness and connection she has with nature that allows her to begin her journey with the Gastropod. In today's world, technology and science can diminish our senses and yet the more and more science looks into either the vastness of space or the intricacy of design in the microscopic world it astonishes and inspires us to the created beauty and design within the systems.
At first Elisabeth asks herself "Why would I be interested in a snail and more personally what right did my friend have to disrupt its life?" Her life had been disrupted and so she transfers her life experience to the snail's experience. She states, "The snail and I were both living in altered landscapes not of our choosing. I figured we share a sense of loss and displacement." So the relationship begins from the common bond of disruption. Elisabeth becomes an observer of the snail and over the long impounded days, begins to understand the immense complexities of this monopod. Observing the snail distracts her from the storm of questions, the whys, whens, and what if's which would assault her still active mind.
Snails eat, sleep, and explores in the exact opposite cycle of humans. Elisabeth's sleep cycle however is not normal, so she is in sync with the wild snail, who cohabits her room. Who knew snails were curious explorers who could adapt to new and challenging environments? While examining the life of the snail Elisabeth learns lessons for her own life, to adapt and evolve. After all, the snail has been evolving for millions of years compared to the relatively short time for humans. Elisabeth has terrarium provided for the snail so that he might live in a habitat more like his former home but is not willing to have the snail be returned to it outside home, she has grown to attached to it. She discovers through research in books that snails have three senses, a stomachfoot, and 2,640 teeth. They have thirty-three teeth per row and eighty or so rows so that when one row wears out it dislodges and the next row moves forward. The row which was dislodged is then replaced in four to six weeks. Elisabeth compares this to her thirty two teeth (one row) which must last her a lifetime. She says "I found myself having tooth envy it seemed far more sensible to belong to a species that had evolved natural tooth replacement." Perhaps the lack of improvement of her health also initiated a bit of jealousy toward the monopod. After all, it was handling the displacement much better than she was.
Even as she attempts to learn about the snail she says "everything about this snail is cryptic, my own life 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 my presence." This is the world of the disabled and one they often desire to escape, to be a person, not a documented case of interest to the doctors. To be a fully alive person even if it requires evolution from limitations.
The inside cover of the book provides this insight, 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." There is symbiotic relationship between the snail and Elisabeth even though the snail may not know it. This book is full of wonderful discoveries about nature, and the human condition, about adaptability and observation of a world which surrounds us and which we so often miss.
I found this book to be enjoyable on many levels, it is well written, opens a window into the world of living with a disability and introduces us to a part of the natural world so often ignored. In it's review, the New York Review of Books proclaims the book, "Brilliant." I would agree.
Title: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating