By BILL DUNCAN
A book about a snail may seem ludicrous to people in Oregon who live with snails and slugs chopping away on their gardens, but Elizabeth Tova Bailey, who also cringed when a friend came to her sickbed with a gift – a potted plant that included a snail. Bailey, confined to her bed with a chronic illness couldn’t imagine such a gift but soon became captivated by this woodland gastropod and pened a poetic reverie to its short, astonishing life.
After reading Bailey’s delightful book on this small, shelled creature, I will never again see a snail in the same way. But in truth, I don’t want to share my garden with these plant predators nor their cousins, the famous Oregon slugs. I learned more about these members of the mollusk family than I really ever intended to know. These creatures have figured prominently in biological studies and it is said that as many as 150,000 species exist. I have had suspicions that all 150,000 live in my backyard. Gastropods live in every conceivable habitat on earth, but they love the damp climate of Oregon.
At the age of 34, Bailey returned from a brief European trip and was felled by a mysterious viral infection resulting in severe neurological symptoms that caused her to be in and out of hospitals for months with the life threatening malady. Once she was well enough to be released, she had to take a studio apartment near the medical facility, rather than returning to her farm in Maine which was 50 miles from the nearest doctor.
It was in this studio apartment that the friend visited herwith the potted plant and the snail.
She wondered: “What on earth would I do with it? I couldn’t get out of bed and return it to the woods.”
She began watching the snail climb to the edge of the potted plant, twitch its antenna and seemingly observe its new surroundings. “When the body is rendered useless,” Bailey wrote, “the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats and their impossible kin how.”
Her mind was not bedridden as her body was, so Bailey while researching the life of a snail, an adventurous life, she discovers, a quiet and solitary world as she and her snail are both on a journey of resilience and survival.
This may seem strange to the reader, but the tiny creature inside that shell helped Bailey overcome the life threatening illness she had and gave readers a remarkable story about the odd life of a snail, its anatomy, defenses, clear decision-making, hydraulic locomotion and its ability to hibernate during bad weather by sealing itself inside its shell cocoon in a survival technique.
This small, 170-page book is like a work of art about something as simple as a snail whose ancestry is found in ancient fossils dating back to pre-historic times. The book, part memoir, part natural history, came about after Bailey recorded her observations and a friend suggested she write it as an essay. The essay won her a Pushcart Prize nomination as well as a Notable Essay listing in the Best American Essays. Bailey, who has become is well known for her essays and short stories, concludes this unique story with a personal note, “I hope the terrestrial snails, secreted away in their burrows by day across the earth’s vast landscapes will continue their mysterious lives, gliding slowly and gracefully through the night, millions of years in the future.”
(Bill Duncan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to P.O. Box 812, Roseburg, OR 97470.)