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At a Snail's Pace

At a Snail’s Pace

Some people prefer to read only specific kinds of books related to certain kinds of human and animal interactions. Perhaps only heady academic tomes. Or fiction, or only those involving dogs or cats and humans interacting with each other in specific ways. My tastes tend to be more eclectic. If I come across something that has an animal and a human in it, I’ll at least make an attempt to read it regardless of the genre.

Because of this, when I first heard of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating I knew I had to read it. Admittedly I’ve always had an affinity for snails for the same inexplicable reason that draws me to otters, owls, dragonflies, moss, and ferns. Maybe someday some inexpensive do-it-yourself DNA mapping kit will confirm that I share more DNA with members of those species than I do with, for example, seals, chickadees, bumblebees, and cacti. This isn’t to say that I don’t find the qualities of those other animals and plants most fascinating. It’s just that my sense of kinship, my bond with them isn’t as intimate. Aside from that, this beautifully written and designed text also caught and kept my attention because of the valuable insights it offers into the nature of the human-animal bond.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating opens with the once healthy and active author incapacitated by an illness of unknown origins, lying in a daybed in a studio apartment barely able to move, separated from her farm, her dog, and the Maine woods through which the two of them used to roam. In one of those small but most significant acts of kindness, a friend discovers a small woodland snail and puts it—or rather s/he because snails are hermaphrodites—in a terracotta pot with some field violets and presents it to Ms. Bailey. In such a way, a beautiful relationship begins .

Initially I feared this might be yet another “How a (fill in name of animal species) saved my life” books. Not that I personally have anything against such stories. It’s just that I find relationships that are bilaterally rewarding reveal more about the bond’s potential than those skewed in primarily one, usually human, direction. At first the author did consider the Neohelix albolabis a diversion in her painfully limited existence and allowed the little creature to fend for its little hermaphroditic self. But before too long, she wanted to know more about the snail so she could better meet its needs. Although I shared her enchantment upon discovering that the snail could chew a square hole in an envelope during the night, I also shared her certainty that woodland snails routinely don’t eat envelopes. And then the questions beyond that which logically and automatically followed: What do snails chew square holes with? Do they have teeth? What do they usually eat?

By now—which isn’t that far into the book—I’m completely hooked. As someone as strongly attuned to nature as Ms. Bailey, the idea of being stuck indoors unable to move and with access to the natural world limited to the view from my bed and bouquets of cut flowers that inevitably will die … Well, I easily could understand how the severance of the author’s more profound and intimate bond with nature would add a considerable burden to a body and mind already burdened by disease. (For those who can’t imagine such a bond, recall those who possess similarly strong bonds with their smartphones. Cut them off from that form of communication and they feel bereft. Then multiply that feeling by a million times for an idea of what I’m talking about here.) When the snail’s flower pot gets replaced by a terrarium, I readily shared the author’s interest as the snail explored this more natural space.

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Like many people who by choice or happenstance find themselves sharing their lives with a wild creature, the author then embarks on a mission to learn as much about snails as she can. And like her readers, she discovers what amazing and captivating creatures they are. Her research spans centuries. The work of revered scientists shares equal billing with that of poets and philosophers. Sometimes the writing of the scientists is as hauntingly beautiful as that of the poets, and the observations of the poets as insightful as that of the scientists. With each additional source, the reader’s knowledge of the snail and the writer who co-habit that unusual human-animal physical and mental niche grows.

The kind of bond with an animal that compels someone to learn about the animal’s species characteristics, what and how they eat, their sensory perception, whether they’re diurnal or nocturnal, solitary or social, how they court, mate, reproduce, and raise their young occurs more often between humans and wild animals than between us and our dogs or cats. I find that interesting. This phenomenon occurs even though many with dogs or cats possess little or no knowledge about those same basic behaviors or how they may affect their own pet’s physical and mental health. Do we value our cats and dogs less than we value a wild animal with whom we accidentally or deliberately wind up sharing the same space for some reason? Is it a case of our familiarity with cats and dogs breeding contempt for their unique characteristics and needs? Is it the novelty of the wild creature, a wildness that might encompass some threat to our own well-being that causes us to want to know more about them?

Such thoughts went through my mind as I marveled at the miracles of slime-travel, hermaphroditic sex, and natural cloning as they unfolded in the terrarium and in the references the author offered on the subjects. Writer Anne Fadiman describes reading “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating as inducing an Alice in Wonderland“ experience in which she developed such an intimate knowledge of the snail and its habitat that she felt drawn into its Lilliputian world instead of being a mere an observer of it. It’s the intimacy of knowing and the desire to know more that draws us in. So different from the hubris that often dominates our interactions with domestic animals!

Three final bond insights offered by this deceptively small book take the form of kudos for the author’s respect for her unusual visitor. One is that she did not name the snail beyond its scientific nomenclature. I wonder if she realized how many people far more physically fit than she would lack the strength to resist the naming-and-claiming temptation. A second is that as her condition improved to the point that her own and snail-time no longer complimented each other, she released the last of the original snail’s offspring in the woods.

And finally, Ms. Bailey dedicated The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating to biophilia, a word coined to describe the intimate connection between humans and other living beings. While I suspect that some people do dwell in mental realms so remote from nature that it would take some extraordinary event to awaken this awareness, for those with the ability to perceive and relish these connections, the dedication is perfect.

If you know a person with such awareness, I can’t think of a better gift to celebrate that feeling than this book.

And you can read an excerpt of the book 5f8539ef7004ad2c>.

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