My mother’s garden received an unusual visitor. A snail. When I had posted a picture of the snail on Twitter, my friend Caroline recommended Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating. I was in between quite a few books when the recommendation came my way, but it became an antidote to my terrible reading slump. The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating is like the unexpected pleasant breeze that tropical summer lets in once in a while when heat tries to siphon off all hope.
With its mysterious, fluid movement, the snail was the quintessential t’ai chi master.
Time was all that Elisabeth Tova Bailey had after a series of illness made her lead her life from the bed. A friend brought a gift for her. It was a humble flower pot, but the friend also left a special someone in the pot. A snail. By being in the horizontal position, Bailey began to observe the snail’s behaviour and daily activities for one year. The world and the people around her had to go around, do their thing, but the snail was in no hurry. Its pace could have been still faster than Bailey’s, but by watching the snail, Bailey meditated on the isolation experienced by everyone who spends all their day on the bed, and the suffering that chronic illness imposes on them.
Her adventure with the snail started after she noticed a tiny square-hole in her envelope. The snail tore into it because it was hungry. To start caring for it, Bailey dove into malacological literature. She learnt what snails love eating, how many teeth they have got (her snail had more than 2,500), their sex (her snail was a hermaphrodite), their courtship and mating process (her snail had 118 offspring in less than a year when it lived in her terrarium), their million-year long journey to become who they are now, and their cryptic behaviour (they do feel!). As she went back and forth on the timeline of evolution, Bailey borrowed observations from scientists and poets, and she laced all that with her own quiet reflections on her illness and the way it had changed her life. My favourite quotes are the ones she borrowed from Kobayashi Issa and Rainer Maria Rilke. They ached with beauty and wisdom. They also gave me the comfort that there were so many of them who had the power to stop time from running away by simply watching a very tiny animal go about its day.
I could never have guessed what would get me through this past year — a woodland snail and its offspring; I honestly don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Watching another creature go about its life … somehow gave me, the watcher, purpose too. If life mattered to the snail and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on… Snails may seem like tiny, even insignificant things compared to the wars going on around the world or a million other human problems, but they may well outlive our own species.
Bailey mostly focussed on the snail. While The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating is a memoir, Bailey’s story and her reflections appeared like bookends in each chapter. Sometimes, she explicitly drew parallels between the snail’s and her life, and most times, she handed information about what it means to be a snail, and left it at that. Even then, the book was so meditative that deep, calming thoughts lashed against the shore of my mind.
Books like The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating suggest that we live our personal timeline. We are not running on the same track, and so, our milestones are personal too. Conventional milestones — graduation, marriage, reproduction, owning properties — might give you a sense of accomplishment. But that shouldn’t rob you of the imagination to see others’ milestones. Running that marathon, cracking a complex code, raising your child might make your life look meaningful. For me, reading a book like this is life. Seeing my dog sitting against the setting sun is life. Listening to an invisible sparrow render a song is life. This life is hard as it is. So, what’s wrong in living it moment by moment?