The internet is down, as it so often is on a rainy day. I find it reassuring that human technology has not moved so far into the beyond as to make weather irrelevant. The lack of internet leaves the morning feeling quieter, calmer than usual. It’s early still. Instead of logging on, I reach for a book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.
Beginning my day reading for pleasure is something new for me. Lying in bed on a weekday morning, luxuriating in another person’s words is shear, toe-wriggling indulgence. But it seems appropriate for a book written more or less on the horizontal, from the bed of a woman suffering a chronic illness, connected to life by the thin but strong silvery thread of snail slime. Besides, one of the biggest learnings I’ve been gaining from this book has to do with slowing down and smelling the snails.
I’ve been reading Sound of a Wild Snail in bits and pieces over the past month in preparation for tomorrow’s book club meeting. Much as Deakin’s description of moth-watching inspired my friend to re-evaluate her position on those winged critters (Wildwood), Bailey’s story has been softening my attitude to the snails that inhabit my garden, helping me forgive them their feeding forays into my strawberries and kale.
It’s a small story with big implications. Most of Bailey’s ecological memoir takes place in the bedroom she has been confined to by a mysterious and debilitating illness and and concerns a snail in a terrarium, the only piece of nature she has access to. That a healing relationship can come so unexpectedly from someone so small and so far from human physiology is cause for optimism.
Arguments are sometimes made that there are dangerous limitations to human abilities to empathise and care. That we are built to be overly concerned with so-called charismatic megafauna — Greenpeace and its polar bears, WWF and its pandas — to the neglect of creatures that are ecologically important but far removed from us in size, biology or habitat. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating challenges this pessimistic view of our imaginative capabilities. While it takes an extreme event of unenviable illness, Bailey proves that humans can relate to and come to care for mollusca, which are several billion years divergent from homo sapiens. Through her skilled storytelling, her contagious curiosity and her playful word-crafting Bailey takes the reader’s imagination by the hand and leads it into her world, where it can be expanded so that readers too can learn to relate to creatures that are very different to themselves.
Even viruses and pathogens are treated with interest and equanimity by Bailey, despite the part they probably played in her condition. Others in her situation might have shut themselves up in a hermetically sealed world of human artifacts, storying germs as militant invaders. She does not, turning her pen to document the important role viruses play in evolving our beautiful world.
The Sound of a Wild Snail is also a meditation on the human condition as observed from someone whose life has been reduced to the pace of a snail. Although Bailey never does so, there are clear connections here with the Slow movement, which not surprisingly uses the snail as its mascot. Bailey is able to enter into the world of the snail by slowing down and leaving behind the everday distractions that well people get caught up in:
“My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had.”
While I would not wish Bailey’s illness on myself or anyone else, when viewed from the perspective of a bed or a terrarium, contemporary lifestyles of chronic busyness are not so enviable either. We all need opportunities to slow down and reconnect with ourselves and the world around us. Slowing down and staying still can bring gifts of insight. I won’t give away any spoilers, but Bailey’s long-term, everyday relationship with a snail enables her to encounter something of their lives that no scientist that studies snails has ever observed.
When so much wonder, mystery and companionship can be found in such a small and mundane piece of the world, there is cause for hope and celebration.
P.S. The photo (taken by Ronan) is of a 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival installation for “Power Plant” at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I was lucky enough to see “Camera Vermicular”, by Jony Easterby, which featured live video footage of a bowl of snails put through a kaleidoscopic filter. It was mesmerising.