The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

by Jay Sheets

I’ve always had a fascination with snails. There is something about them that feels perfectly poised in their slow, but purposeful, way of life—their shell as a home, the earth as a neighborhood—that reminds us to slow down and take life as it comes. So, when I came across Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, I knew I was in for a great read.

Bailey writes on how she suffered from a debilitating illness which kept her bedridden for years. During that time, a friend of the author brought a plant in from the garden to keep beside her bed, and a snail happened to be hiding under one of the leaves. Bailey goes on to tell a story of eventual companionship with this snail (rightly named “The Snail”), which, over time, gave her a much-needed purpose for living during her difficult battle. The more her fascination with the snail grew, the more she researched snails, and she shares these scientific findings perfectly throughout her memoir.

As a poet, I was happy to come across this thought by the author, when speaking of her own fascination with these little creatures: “...I also came across poets and writers who have each, at some point in their life, become intrigued by the life of a snail...” To read the words ‘poet’ and ‘snail’ in the same sentence was certainly surprising, but makes perfect sense. Poets and writers are creatures of the present when engulfed in their work, so what better animal to represent the feelings of the poet and writer than the snail? Especially when we think of how most poets and writers are solitary creatures, ‘shelled’ away in our thoughts, only to come out at night or when the rest of the world is sleeping to ‘feed’ on the mysteries of the world.  

Not only did I get the chance to discover what we can learn from the life of a snail in all the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, I got the chance to learn about the life of the snail itself; how a snail’s slime is stronger than we could ever imagine, how it can glide over a razor-sharp knife like it was nothing, or how it can defy gravity when put in a position to have to carry fifty times its own weight on its shell. I also learned that snails are nocturnal; sleeping during the day and exploring and eating at night. I learned that their favorite foods are mushrooms, and, if stuck in captivity, will escape to feed on whatever’s around—paper, stamps, cardboard boxes. I also learned that the common wood snail has, amazingly, thousands of teeth, and that you can actually hear it eating or munching away at a piece of lettuce if you’re close enough. The most fascinating thing I learned, however, was how the snail can be likened to the Cupid of the animal world, and because of this, I will never look at snails, or Valentine’s Day, the same way again. The following is an excerpt from Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Durrell, as imparted by Bailey:

“As I watched them [two snails] they glided up to each other as their horns touched. Then they paused and gazed earnestly into each other’s eyes. One of them shifted his position slightly so that he could glide alongside the other one. When he was alongside, something happened that made me doubt the evidence of my own eyes. From his side, and almost simultaneously from the side of the other snail, there shot what appeared to be two minute, fragile white darts...The dart from snail one pierced the side of snail two and disappeared, and the dart from snail two performed a similar function on snail one...Peering at them so closely that my nose was almost touching them…[I watched as] presently their bodies were pressed tightly together. I knew they must be mating, but their bodies had become so amalgamated that I could not see the precise nature of the act. They stayed rapturously side by side...and then, without so much as a nod or a thank you, they glided away in opposite directions.”

These ‘darts,’ as Durrell describes, and as Bailey informs us, are “...tiny, beautifully made arrows of calcium carbonate, and they look as if they’ve been crafted by the very finest of artisans. They are formed inside the body of the snail over the course of a week and can be as much as one-third the length of the shell. The dart’s shaft is hollow and circular, and, depending on the species, may have four fin-like blades, which are sometimes flanged; one end is harpoon sharp, while the other end comes to a flair with a corona-like base.” These ‘darts’ are vehicles for sperm, and since snails are hermaphrodites and can take on either gender when necessary, some species will simultaneously swap sperm. Other species can be solely male or female, or reverse roles at any given time. How fascinating is that! Again, I will never view Cupid the same way after this read. Though we know Cupid represents/is derived from Greek mythology, couldn’t it be safe to say that our modern idea of Cupid and ‘Cupid’s Dart’ could have been inspired by the ‘love-making’ of the snail? With this information, it certainly makes one think Yes.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a great day-read for anyone looking for something off the beaten path. This book gifts us new perspectives on companionship, surviving illness, and of course, the wonderful world of the snail.