Elisabeth Tova Bailey's life was changed by a virus she probably contracted while in a small town in the Alps; it left her unable to resume the active busy life she had led to that point. During one relapse when she was bedridden, a friend brought her a snail she found in the nearby woods along with violets planted in a terra-cotta pot. The snail took up residence beneath the violets, coming out at night to snack on paper left on the table by Bailey's bed. She sent postcards that had tiny square holes with an arrow pointing out the snail's supper. You can tell that she becomes very fond of the snail:
Despite its small size, the snail was a fearless and tireless explorer. Maybe it was searching for a trail back to its original woods or hoping to find better fare. Instinctively it knew its limits, how far it could travel during the night and still return home in the morning….Setting off on an expedition, its tentacles stretched out in anticipation, the snail appeared confident about where it ws going, as if what it was looking for was just a few inches farther ahead.
Its salutary effect on Bailey is clear:
Watching it glide along was a welcome distraction and provided a sort of meditation; my often frantic and frustrated thoughts would gradually settle down to match its calm, smooth pace. With its mysterious, fluid movement, the snail was the quintessential tai chi master.
Later a terrarium with plants and materials from the snail's woods was set up. When she learned that snails eat mushrooms, a piece of one was given to the snail in place of the paper and then flowers that had wilted.
It was so happy to have a familiar food, after weeks of nothing but wilted flowers, that for several days it slept right next to the huge piece of portobello, waking throughout the day to reach up and nibble before sinking back into a well-fed slumber. Each night a surprisingly large portion of the mushroom would vanish, until, by the end of the week, the very last piece had disappeared.
Bailey learned was that snails are hermaphrodites when her snail produced several sets of eggs. She ultimately learned that 118 baby snails were produced. I love this story:
As the tiny snails grew, their shells increased in size and slowly became opaque. There must have been several weeks between hatchings, as it was easy to tell the clutches apart. One night, a younger hatchling followed one of its older siblings across the terrarium's glass side. It then crawled onto the older sibling's shell. The older sibling turned and looked at the younger one, and they waved their tentacle noses wildly at each other, but there was no way for the older snail to get the youngster off its back. It seemed to be a case of sibling conflict. I didn't want to interfere, but I finally managed to sit up just long enough to detach the smaller snail and place it by the pile of crushed eggshells. It spent the evening there, eating contentedly, which made me think perhaps it was after the calcium in the older sibling's shell.
I had no idea a snail could be such a captivating subject; Elisabeth Tova Bailey's wit, light touch, and beautiful writing made this an outstanding book.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Algonquin Books, 2010, 208 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.