The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, 2010

This is the autobiography of a woman who becomes suddenly and devastatingly unwell and then meets a snail. It is brought to her sick room and put in a pot of violets by her bed. She finds solace and a solitary kind of companionship in the snail as she watches it munch mushrooms, and embarks on a “read and watch” journey into Mollusca.

I’m more of a landscape girl. I never liked zoos. I never liked animals unless I could interact with them – hence horses, dogs and the occasional goat. I don’t have that fascination that some people seem to have with the habits of proboscis monkeys and pandas. Bailey’s thoughts triggered some of the delight I may have missed – watching a snail slobbering over its eggs to keep them moist, breaking up snail fights, sympathising with a snail with indigestion! It should be an exercise in French improvised theatre school. “So! Yu arrre a sneil. Yu hev eaten your weight in cornstarch. GO.”

The book is a love song to the snail, littered with references to “malacology literature”. The quality of classic and modern literature and philosophy devoted to the snail gave me the feeling that I’d missed something meaningful in their existence.”In a Snailery”, “Snails and their Houses”, Cowper’s “The Snail”, Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snail and the Rosebush”. “A Conchologist’s First Book” by Edgar Allen Poe, 1839. Aristotle commented on their teeth. Mollusca tormented Darwin in his sleep.

I should say, it’s not just about the snail. It’s about being ill, being left behind by the world, becoming a ghost. It’s about taking a really long time, snail like, to do anything. Bailey marvels at how “careless” we are with our energy, how much useless movement we engage in.

(If you’re interested, the author’s illness started with some kind of “flu-like” illness, progressed to systemic paralysis, autoimmune dysautonomia and was followed by that horrific label “chronic fatigue syndrome”, which is what makes doctors bow their heads in sorrow for their patients and for themselves.)

There are plenty of fascinating descriptions of a snail’s teeth, tentacles, shell and sense of smell. Snail slime – a substance which may soon be used for colonoscopies and data storage. Snail lovemaking, a wonderful idea. Bailey ponders whether a snail could have out-glided a moving glacier in the last ice age – it brought to mind the minuscule, mercurial snail, cartoon like, hurtling along at six inches a day, ahead of the equally nimble glacier, the pursuit watched breathlessly by the surrounding mountains.

I finished this book as we camped by the beach last weekend. We saw emus, bandicoots, kangaroos, an echidna, and a massive python with the obvious internalised remains of some bony animal. But for some reason the animals that intrigued me most were the crabs, rolling their millions of perfectly round sand balls over the beach. Why do they do it? How do they learn to make those astrological patterns? What drives them? Are they unionised? I shall order through inter-library loan the Complete History of the Brachyura Infraorder of the Decapod Crustaceans. And so a new biologist is born. Not really. They just make me smile and wonder.

 

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Oh, new words anyone? Yes please.

Aestivate: similar to hibernating but in hot, dry weather. “We aestivated the afternoon away.”

Pneumostome: A breathing hole. “I can’t wait to go pneumostoming on the reef when we get to Cairns”.