Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

One Wild Snail, or, How A Curmudgeonly Gust of Wind Was Tamed

November 12, 2010

On my twitter-feed recently, this message appeared: Miracles and wonders happen everyday...hope you find and enjoy them.

Immediately, a curmudgeonly gust filled my lungs and out came a groan. Any reader of this blog knows I’m an animal lover; the natural world does bring me joy. But honestly, could a message be any more trite?

For one thing, how are we to locate these abundant miracles and wonders? Should we all go stand outdoors in the chill November air and await our senses to be struck? Or should we proactively part the autumn grass seeking treasures, then adore the menagerie of squirrels and birds in our yards?

Look, this kind of thing doesn’t usually work for most of us, and even less so during the November-December holiday season. This is the stressing season; who has time for miracles and wonders right now? (Yes, yes, I get the irony- it’s the run-up to religious holidays after all.)

Still, every once in a while, along comes a story along these lines so fresh and unexpected that it lodges in one’s consciousness as firmly as a fruit in a fruitcake. Such is the case with Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books, 2010).

The story is a memoir. A woman in her 30s who had loved to sail, hike, and romp outdoors with her dog, Bailey is now confined to bed. A mysterious illness has weakened her so much she barely can sit up.

One spring day, a friend brings her a pot of violets into which she had placed a snail she’d found in the woods. The friend tells Bailey, “I thought you might enjoy it.” Bailey is nonplussed. How does anyone enjoy a snail?

An ode-like answer to that question is offered in this book. Soon enough, Bailey realizes that the snail’s comings and goings give her “a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.” She observes the snail keenly, and begins to read snail literature and to consult with snail experts.

In effect, Bailey crawls into the snail’s shell. What does it feel like, she asks, to rely on smell and taste and touch to the near exclusion of vision and the total exclusion of hearing? What’s it like to be a hermaphrodite? Bailey learns that two snails about to mate may come into conflict if both aim to take on the same gender—a fact that caused a cascade of arresting images to fill my mind!

Even snail-slime becomes of interest when explained by Bailey in the context of species-specific biology. (Her snail is the white-lipped forest variety.)

Now and again, the text becomes over-fanciful. “As I watched [the snail] eat,” Bailey writes, “I noticed that it nodded its head gently up and down. Did this mean that it approved of its dinner?” Most often, though Bailey uses the snail to plumb malacology, the science of mollusks, and translate it into fabulously interesting passages.

And Bailey, to her credit, looks head on at ethical questions. Should the snail have been plucked from its familiar world to enhance her own pleasure? “The snail and I,” she notes with empathy, “were both living in altered landscapes not of our choosing; I figured we shared a sense of loss and displacement.” She endeavors to upgrade the snail’s daily experiences in astute ways.

Precisely how the snail inspired Bailey; what Bailey ultimately choose to do once the snail birthed 118 offspring; and how she came to understand better her disease are all gifts awaiting those who read her story.

Thanks to the delights of Bailey’s prose and the accompanying soft-pencil drawings by Kathy Bray, I’ll never look at snails the same way again. The small wonders of this book brought to a halt all my curmudgeonly gusting. I’ve so far bought five copies as holiday gifts for friends.


  1. November 12, 2010 9:12 AM EST
    This is lovely. I don't think the example you selected as over fanciful (at least not from reading the extract in your blog) truly is.... ... the author made an observation and asked a question that can generate a hypothesis (and one that can be tested). Think of the wonderful study in this week's Science of how cats lap. No funding needed.
    - Sian Evans
  2. November 12, 2010 10:58 AM EST
    Valid point, Sian. Later in the book, Bailey offers a scientific explanation for the head movement of the snail that's really fascinating. Her question about whether head-nodding = the snail's liking something just seemed, I guess, overly human-based to me; mollusks aren't primates! I've just now forwarded this blog post to Algonquin Books to convey how much I loved this author's perspective though, so I don't mean to exaggerate this small issue.
    - Barbara J. King
  3. November 12, 2010 8:19 PM EST
    I loved this! My first assignment in my first class (Biology 101) when I returned to school in my 40s was to observe a living creature for one hour, and take notes. I chose to watch a banana slug, going about its business in the redwood leaf litter. What a wonderful, eye opening, mind slowing experience, to adjust to the slug's pace, so different from our own.
    - joanne tanner
  4. November 12, 2010 9:37 PM EST
    Joanne, that's a fabulous assignment. I wonder if I shouldn't adapt it for Primate Behavior class- before we go to the zoo and observe, have each student observe a "small creature." By the way, let me just say re: the last line of my blogpost, er, please don't go out and buy the book!!
    - Barbara J. King
  5. November 12, 2010 9:55 PM EST
    Great post, Barbara! Sounds really interesting. I think it'd be really great for students to observe a small creature before going to the zoo - thinking about it I wish we had done that in my class! I don't think that most of us take enough time out to observe such simple, yet fascinating, creatures.
    - Jen Draiss
  6. November 13, 2010 8:40 AM EST
    Jen, I have a new chapter out in a teaching-anthropology volume that offers one way teachers might organize a trip to a good zoo, so that their students may learn something meaningful about primates. (Not meant for students at your level, obviously.) If the collection is updated/reprinted I'd want to offer this idea of small-creature observation as a pre-field-trip activity!
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.