'The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating'

A few years ago, my kids and I caught a snail in our garden and kept it overnight in a mesh-covered container in our house.

We weren't sure what to feed it, so we gave it some leaves and a baby carrot. After settling in, the snail grated away at the carrot with it's radula, a tongue-like structure coated in teeth. It devoured a surprisingly large portion of the carrot. The odd thing was that, if we were all quiet, the scraping sound of the snail eating was clearly audible.

So when I came across Elisabeth Tova Bailey's diminutive new book, "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating," I just had to pick it up.

Bailey's health was destroyed after a pathogen she contracted in Europe attacked her body, damaging her circulatory and immune systems, and leaving her so weak that she was almost paralyzed. A friend brought her a woodland snail, which took up residence in a pot of violets by Bailey's bedside. While "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating" is a fascinating look into the little known world of snails, it's also a painful, thoughtful meditation on how people react to the chronically ill.

Her friends come for visits, but have a difficult time dealing with the changes to Bailey's body. Her days and — especially — nights seem to stretch forever.

"My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had," Bailey writes. "My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what time I could not use. It was perplexing in how losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose."

Fortunately, the slow, graceful movements of the snail and its largely nocturnal lifestyle are a perfect match for Bailey. She gets help moving it into a terrarium and begins researching snails with the help of her caregiver and inter-library loans. Bailey learns that a common snail has approximately 2,640 tiny teeth arranged in about 80 rows on its radula. It's the sound of those teeth working that she hears when she feeds it a flower petal.

"I listened carefully. I could hear it eating. The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously," she writes.

Bailey finds out that one-third of a snail's daily energy expenditures go into the production of mucous, or slime. There are many varieties of slime, from the kind that helps lubricate a snail's path so it can move, to a special medicinal mucus with antioxidants and regenerative properties that the snail excretes when its shell is damaged.

Baily is especially intrigued by 19th-century naturalists, who spent hours observing the lives of even nature's most humble creatures. She delves into an 1886 edition of Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History to read an article by E. Sandford with the intriguing title "Experiments to Test the Strength of Snails." Spotting a snail crawling up a window blind one evening, Sandford decides to test what weight the snail can pull. He attaches cotton to the snail and finds it can still climb up carrying a load nine times its own weight. He puts a one-third ounce snail on his table and finds it can horizontally pull cotton, "with the addition of a pair of scissors, a screwdriver, a key, and a knife, weighing altogether seventeen ounces, or fifty-one times the weight of a snail. The same snail, on being placed on the ceiling, was able to travel with four ounces suspended from its shell" — or 12 times its own weight.

Baily doesn't test her own snail to see if its powers could exceed that of a draft horse (which can pull a sled three times its own weight), but she does learn valuable lessons from her gastropod companion before letting her caregiver return it to the woods.

"I thought of the terrarium's limited space, and how the snail had seemed content as it ate, explored, and fulfilled a life cycle," she writes. "This gave me hope that perhaps, I, too, could still fulfill dreams, even if they were changed dreams."

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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