a snail’s tale (win ‘the sound of a wild snail eating’)

alien snailIT WAS NO ORDINARY SNAIL; far larger than any familiar native species in my cold zone, and obviously out of place. It was fall 2013, and fearing it would not survive, I scooped it up, found an old aquarium in the shed, brought it into the house along with soil and moss, and made the snail (above) a home.

A visiting friend saw the aquarium-turned-terrarium, listening patiently to my explanation of the new roommate. A few days later, a package arrived.

Inside was “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” (affiliate link), Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s little prize-winning 2010 book, a kind of memoir blended with natural history and an almost-Buddhist sense of awakening.

It was written about a time when Bailey was bedridden, convalescing from a long and serious illness. The story begins when a guest who happened on a snail on a woodland walk picked it up, potted up some violets from the yard, and set the flowerpot down, snail and all, at Bailey’s bedside. The accidental companion becomes not just a curiosity item or entertainment, but a teacher, a soulmate, and the source of revelation.

It’s hard to think of the story of a more intimate relationship—and all conducted in silence (except for that occasional munching on a mushroom slice).

I HAD REASON a couple of years ago to recommend the snail book to someone recuperating from illness, and having been reminded of it, pulled it out to re-read. In this year of foiled plans and do-overs, every move scotched by some meteorological outburst or another and homebound being the rule instead of exception, it seems like just the right choice once again.

Last time I read it, I was relieved to learn about the long periods of inactivity that snails undergo. Mine hadn’t “done anything” in months, yet it was still the same weight—it certainly hadn’t dried up as if dead, its operculum remaining tightly in place. Perhaps it read one of the many just-right quotes in Bailey’s snail book, like this one from Anthony Cook’s book on mollusks, in which he describes their basic operating philosophy:

“The right thing to do is to do nothing, the place to do it is in a place of concealment, and the time to do it is as often as possible.”

Indeed, and then some.

MY OWN SNAIL STORY continued another year or thereabouts, though my family wasn’t always sold on the situation.

“You need a new cat,” my niece insisted after my beloved Jack died not so many months after the snail’s arrival (no cause and effect implied; rodents were his passion, not mollusks).

“I have a snail,” I said back then, digging in.

“All right, then: You can get a cat and name it Snail,” she replied, negotiating—but only slightly—from her opening offer. I like to think she gets her stubbornness from me.

win a copy of the snail book

I’LL BUY one lucky reader a copy of “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. To enter, just answer this question in the comments below:

Has there been a wild creature who has informed, or continues to inform, your life–or just amazes you? It needn’t be one who has come inside to live!

Feeling shy, or no answer? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will. Two random winners will be selected and informed by email after entries close at midnight Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: Purchases made from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)

  1. Regina says:

    I sense that the chickadee is scolding me when I’m in the backyard and need to fill the bird feeder. Or maybe he’s telling his friends that food is coming soon.

  2. Margi Haas says:

    Swallow-tailed kites are beautiful hawks that grace my central Florida skies from late February to August every year when they fly up from South America to breed and raise their chicks and then amazingly all fly back to South America in late summer.

  3. Amy Jackson says:

    A green anole would pop out of our tea olive bush whenever my 4 year old daughter would sing. He would literally climb up the deck railing and watch her dance and sing. Tilting his little shedding head when she talked to him. ‘Ol Limey. It was pretty darn cute.

  4. Angelina Reyes says:

    We’ve had an abundance of Butterflies this year! Beautiful golds, blues and purples dancing around my plants and flowers in the front. Love watching them!

  5. Nancy says:

    I was lucky to witness a fawn just a few days old. It was frozen in the road as the car came around a band. It was so fragile and so small and so new. I just stopped well back to let it move on. But the fragility of such a beautiful being Was scary. And my feeling of wanting to hug it and make it feel safe was so strong. I was sad that I was responsible for its fright. Such a little frail being.

  6. Suzanne Heller says:

    Every autumn a few crickets choose to live out their lives with me as the weather gets colder and colder. My house is always warm and cozy and I’m happy to share it with them.

  7. Marilyn Hill says:

    I recently spotted a 6” black, lizard like creature with bright yellow spots as my husband and I were raking leaves this fall. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen one and still haven’t identified it. I took a few pictures and will send it to a friend who can hopefully Identify it.

  8. Virginia Grace Abraham says:

    Bumblebees! Physics, “smythics”, they aren’t supposed to be able to fly.
    The Queens overwinter (despite the crazy HOA’s denuding/poisoning), workers come to my flowers & buzz-love even non-natives like Tithonia/Mexican Sunflowers, i show kids it’s all good.

  9. Betsy Naselli says:

    I continue to live in awe of the beavers who indefatigably continue to try to construct their den under and around my dock on the river. Just about each night they bring in freshly felled branches and bits of trees they’ve found floating; including many dogwoods, hydrangeas and yews that I know came from my neighbors landscaping. And just about every day I work tirelessly to remove this wood, talking to them as I go about sending some of it back out into the current with a very long rake that my deceased spouse ( this used to be his daily task) cobbed together from a garden rake attached to the handle of a roof snow rake, and some of it to the fire pit to be disposed of in flames. I say ” You know, this is not a winning situation for either of us. This is a lose lose situation. Why don’t you at least consider moving your den to an uncivilized piece of the waterfront? I can think of many appropriate spots that I
    ‘ve seen from my kayak'” But, no, on they go building at night and on I go tearing away in the daytime. Last full moon I gave them an offering of tobacco leaves and politely entreated them to move on as suggested by a Native American friend. We shall see.

  10. Debra says:

    We have had a quail lay her eggs in our geranium pot for three years in a row. She comes and leaves one or two at at time, until it is time for her to stay on her nest of faded flowers and hot, damp soil. For her, she has found a sanctuary away from predators who would gladly take her hoped for chicks from her. Day after hot day she waits, barely leaving to feed herself. We give her shade from an umbrella, when the breezes aren’t too strong. The irrigation keeps the plants from completely drying up. We leave the spent blooms for her, as every little bit of shelter helps. And then the day comes when the babes hatch out of their shells and tumble to the ground. Off and running they are! Mother and Father Quail keeping guard. Teaching their little ones how to survive in a harsh world.
    I have learned so much from her. Her eye, following and watching us, staying put and trusting we mean her no harm.
    Courage, Survival, and I would say Love. The kind that does what it must, no matter what.

  11. anne says:

    Living in the country for the first time in my life. The chipmunks outside my windows have been a constant source of delight and wonder.

  12. Barbara Whitaker says:

    The little catbird that discovered my back yard covid relaxing spot. I thought he was so beautiful and had never seen one–so stylish with that tail to fan out and the dashing black mark on its head. and social.

  13. Beverly says:

    All birds amaze me, but in particular, was a cardinal I called “Pretty Boy”. Each morning, I toss my cockatoo’s leftover seeds/peanuts to the wild birds. PB caught on quickly, and would wait patiently each morning. If he saw me at the kitchen sink,
    or front door, he’d flutter back and forth until I gave him – and the Blue Jays – peanuts. He’d grab one and fly off. A couple of weeks later, I’d see him feeding his offspring. This lasted a few years, till I guess he went to that big bird feeder in the sky…
    Now there’s a female cardinal that waits each day. Perhaps PB’s offspring?

  14. Judith Mayes says:

    Has there been a wild creature who has informed, or continues to inform, your life–or just amazes you? It needn’t be one who has come inside to live!

    Yes, I have a wild creature in my garden. It is making a home in my compost pile, and I am disrupting its efforts on a regular basis when I water and turn the pile. I tried putting a tall board across the entrance to the pile, and it has not deterred it even one whit. I suspect it will be spending the winter there because the pile is warm and cozy. I will be turning the pile all winter long, and I burying new compost materials in the various beds too. I found that the buried new materials will completely disappear over the course of the winter months, and the bed will be ready for a quick twist with my garden witch, and then a few clumps are broken up by hand, the surface smoothed and planting can resume. We will see if anyone is interested in my spinach seedlings this year. Nobody bothered them last year all winter long and into the spring till I pulled them all up when they bolted. I will be pulling out my tomato plants and Malabar spinach soon and putting the garden to bed. Looking forward to winter.

  15. Sande Nelson says:

    When I was 3 and in a park with my mother, I learned down from the paved walk to look at a creature in the grass.
    It was a silver snake with red eyes. The eyes has black slits for pupils.
    The snake looked back at me. I thought it was magic and wanted to get to know it. I bent down closer to it.
    Just at that moment, my mother called me away and I has to scurry to catch up to her.
    I never saw the snake again. The lovely park was in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, NY. It has since gone through many changes.
    This meeting took place 70 years ago. I never forgot it. I am still sure that snake was a magical being.

  16. Karin Peterson says:

    Since childhood I had always wanted to see an English Robin! On an unexpected trip to London as an adult I got up early the first morning to walk in Kensington Garden. As I approached a long, low wall a small brown bird with a brilliant red orange bib landed on it and began hopping along the wall with me as I walked the pathway. I was thrilled to meet this beautiful English Robin and it warmly welcomed me to England’s natural world.

  17. Mary says:

    A Carolina Wren quickly slipped into a dry airy space with fall leaves, under the front steps. We’ve yet to hear one sing here, and it’s the first one after 5 years that we’ve seen. Perhaps we’ll see it again when we put out a winter suet feeder– after the bears are unlikely to drop by. Are they moving in? Hope so!

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