The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating

“The velocity of the ill, however, is like that of the snail.”
– Emily Dickinson

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a beautifully written book interweaving her experience with chronic illness with her life co-habiting with a snail. Perhaps my own chronic illness gave the book a certain poignancy but I couldn’t put it down.

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The book had been on my wish list for so long that I had forgotten what it was about until a post over on Bimblings reminded me. Read the book but also read the post, both are excellent, high quality pieces of writing.

Back to Wild Snails… Each chapter is snail sized, perfect for those of us with brain fog or hands which don’t like to hold books. It is scattered with quotes from others as well as quotable phrases from Bailey.

“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… Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties.”
– Bailey

Unable to get out of bed, a friend brings her some flowers and a snail from nearby woods, something I’ve recommended before as a way of connecting with nature when you can’t leave your house. Friends have come bearing gifts of conkers, acorns, interesting looking leaves but so far no animals!

Hiding

“The tiny, intimate sound of the snails eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.”
– Bailey

I suspect that anyone who has been unable to leave their bed or house for long periods of time knows the feeling of loneliness, of enforced solitary confinement and for Bailey, the snail would alleviate some of this additional pain. But more than that, the snail would teach her and guide her like a mentor. Watching the snail “provided a sort of meditation; [her] often frantic and frustrated thoughts would gradually settle down to match its calm, smooth pace.”

Snails

In between her reflections on the snail and her own life, are interesting facts, for example her particular snail possessed around 2,640 teeth in it’s tiny mouth. And a snail’s world is painted predominately by smell, taste and touch. In learning about the snail, she sees herself:

“I learned that snails are extremely sensitive to the ingestion of toxic substances from pollution and to changes in environmental conditions, such as temperature, moisture, wind and vibration. I could relate to this, as my dysfunctional autonomic nervous system made me sensitive to these things as well.”

To see ourselves in a mirror, and to see others experiencing similar feelings, is incredibly helpful in coming to terms with our illnesses and our new way of being in the world. I think, to some extent, my animal spirit posts have given me something of this. They are vessels for self reflection but they are also companions in facing shared difficulties, alone but together.

““I am going to withdraw from the world; nothing that happens there is any concern of mine.” And the snail went into his house and puttied up the entrance.”
– Hans Christian Anderson

I devoured The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating in much the same way as Bailey’s snail ate it’s way through letters and envelopes. It is a short, small book, filled with poetic observations and for me, is the type of nature writing I aspire to. There is an ordinariness in it. She is not exploring remote, far flung places. She is not at a microscope. She is someone who could easily be me, or you. But through the snail, she found herself a way of coping in a challenging situation.

“In a March 2009 article in the New Yorker, Atul Gawande wrote, “All human beings experience isolation as torture.” Illness isolates; the isolated become invisible; the invisible become forgotten. But the snail… the snail kept my spirit from evaporating.”

By the end of the book, her health has improved but she remains ill, keeping the snails teachings with her; “lots to do at whatever pace I can go. I must remember the snail.”

Climb Mount Fuji
O snail
but slowly, slowly
– Kobayashi Issa

Snail

snail

In some ways, the snail is very similar to the tortoise.  Both are land dwelling animals with slow paced lives and shells that they can retreat into.  But the snail sees things much closer.  Because of it’s size, it sees the details in the world, the little things, it has an awareness of the minutiae not the big picture.  In this way it reminds me of the mouse.  But where the mouse reacts with fear and alertness and overwhelm, the snail, with it’s slower approach to life takes it all in it’s stride, or slide.

The snail is here to remind us to slow down, slow and steady wins the race, good things come to those who wait and anything important is worth doing properly.  Some see their speed, or lack thereof, as a sign on laziness but not me.  I see it as well paced, in it for the long game, valuing quality over quantity.  Think about “snail mail”.  We are all bombarded with many emails a day and I bet none of them make you smile as much as s single, personal letter.

Their beautiful shell is a testament to mother nature and grows by adding new deposits of calcium carbonate to the edge of the shell opening.  This means the centre of the shell is the oldest part of it and was created when the snail was very young.  When they are fully grown, they often add a thickened layer to the shell opening, a thickened edge.  Mathematically speaking, the spiral is a very important shape in nature because of the efficient way it is formed.  Symbolically speaking, the spiral is a very important shape with a range of meanings:

  • The path from outer concerns and consciousness to the inner self and subconscious
  • The evolution of the world, of man and/or of the self
  • Expansion and growth
  • Connection to the world
  • Cycles
  • Centeredness
  • Rebirth
  • The feminine
  • Nature
  • The universe

“The human mind always makes progress, but it is a progress made in spirals.”
-Madame de Stael

Like the tortoise, the snail asks us to consider whether it is time to retreat and rest or time to leave our shells and go out into the world.

Snails have been used in divination including predicting marriage and rain.  When they climbed the stalks of crops, it was said to be time for the harvest.

Snails

As well as being a source of food in some parts of the world, they have also been used in healing and have featured in a lot of witches magic.

The snail also features on the Rider Waite Smith 9 of pentacles card.  A card which considers what we have accomplished.  It reminds us that we achieve our goals by going slow and steady and taking things step by step.