A Wild New England Gastropod
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating Elisabeth Tova Bailey, (Algonquin Books, 2016)
In a snail’s world, there is no need for a dentist. The wild New England gastropod that is the hero of this story comes equipped with 2,640 teeth which are arranged in arcs so that when the first row of 33 or so wear down, they are replaced by the next row, one of some 80 rows which populate its mouth. The teeth point slightly inward and can scrape and pierce. No doubt, if you listen carefully you can hear a snail eat.
Paying attention to the natural world’s small and marvelous details is a small part of what this book celebrates. The author, debilitated by a mysterious pathogen, spends a bedridden year with a snail as her companion. Her immediate observations are buttressed by research done later, and the facts she presents about snails are astounding. They will not all be given away here, but suffice to say there are many behaviors and qualities that snails exhibit which are downright enviable. Imagine when faced by boorish neighbors, being able to pick up your entire house and move. Or, when the environment becomes hostile, checking out by withdrawing into your shell, building a door of slime, and waiting until the bad winds blow over—perhaps a couple of years if necessary. And then emerging to a better world.
Underlying this fascinating narrative is the poignant bond Bailey develops with the creature housed in the moss-filled terrarium at her bedside. Her life on hold, she cannot even move, physically, at a snail’s pace. But watching the snail fuels her curiosity and it is her thirst for knowledge and the joy of wonder that keep the vagaries of her illness and misfortune at bay. And who would have thought that snails also captured the imagination of Edgar Allen Poe, Patricia Highsmith, Aristotle and Darwin? Their writings add to Bailey’s delicate weave of the personal, scientific and literary.
So, as you walk through the woods of Leschi, look closely. Tread lightly. Yes, a snail can rebuild its shell should you crunch it, but if you read this book you will discover it has many other enjoyable activities it would rather be pursuing. And don’t resist the longing to fling a small piece of eggshell or Portobello mushroom into the underbrush. It will disappear soon and be much appreciated. Remember this:
In terms of size, mammals are an anomaly, as the vast majority of the world’s existing animal species are snail sized or smaller. It’s almost as if, regardless of your kingdom, the smaller your size and the earlier your place on the tree of life, the more critical is your niche on earth: snails and worms create soil, and blue-green algae create oxygen; mammals seem comparatively dispensable, the result of the random path of evolution over a luxurious amount of time. – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, page 87
(The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is the winner of the John Burroughs Medal and other awards. It is available at your local independent bookstore.)