“The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is, ‘Look under foot.’ You are always nearer to the divine and the sources of your power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Don’t despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.” John Burroughs, contemporary of John Muir and a naturalist who lived in the Catskill Mountains of New York, penned these words almost a hundred years ago. While Muir roamed the high Sierra of California, extolling the beauty of (relatively) untrammeled wilderness, John Burroughs walked paths through the woods surrounding his cabin, Slabsides, observing the plants and animals nearby. As Burroughs’ life and writings reveal, we do not have to travel great distances to encounter the wonder and mystery of nature; it can be as close at hand as a flower pot on a windowsill – or, even, as Elisabeth Tova Bailey discovered, on a bedside table.
An avid hiker and adventurer who relished walks in her home state of Maine as well as travels around the world, Elisabeth was felled by a mysterious pathogen at the age of 34, leaving her intermittently bedridden for many years. Lacking sufficient energy even to sit upright, her world was reduced to her most immediate surroundings. Even the window was too far away for her to see beyond the confining walls of her room. A friend who was visiting her noticed some field violets blooming in her backyard, dug them up, placed them in a pot, and added a woodland snail that she had found. That lone snail became a point of connection to nature – a companion whose mysterious ways became a fascination for her. “Everything about a snail is cryptic,” she would later write, “and it was precisely this air of mystery that first captivated my interest.”
Initially, Elisabeth knew practically nothing about snails – what they ate, or how to care for them. “I couldn’t imagine what kind of life a snail might lead. I didn’t remember ever having noticed any snails on my countless hikes in the woods,” she explains in her book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Realizing that the flower pot was not an ideal home for the snail, she soon had a terrarium made for it, filled with native mosses and ferns. At night, when sleep eluded her, she could hear the snail munching on leaves. “The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously…. The tiny, intimate sound of the snail’s eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.” Her fascination with the snail grew, as she “observed without thinking, looking into the terrarium simply to feel connected to another creature….” She watched the snail move, eat, and sleep. She noticed the trail of mucus it left behind on its journey, and was entranced by the architecture of its shell.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s book is a chronicle of her experiences sharing her life with a snail, experiencing firsthand the sense of allurement to other living things that the naturalist E. O. Wilson refers to as “biophilia”. “Naturally solitary and slow paced, the snail glided silently along, leading me through a dark time into a world beyond that of my own species,” she explains in her book. She entered that world through observing, and later, when she was feeling slightly better, she also explored the nature of snails by reading intently about them, including pouring over the twelve volumes of The Mollusca, a series of scientific texts about snails and their relatives. In her reading, she learned many new things about snails, including their evolution, presumed level of intelligence, and mating and reproductive behaviors.
All this time, Elisabeth Tova Bailey continued to observe the wanderings of the snail in its terrarium. One morning, she looked through the glass and discovered that the snail had laid eggs the previous night. She later learned that she “may be the first person to have recorded observations of a snail tending its eggs.” Confined to bed, far removed from the sophisticated analytical equipment and methods of a top-end laboratory, the author still managed to make original discoveries about a creature so (seemingly) commonplace as a snail. Her experience is a message to all of us that, in a culture as fast-paced as ours, there is much to be learned from slowing down and paying close attention to what is around us, and being open to whatever might unfold.
The path of natural history, as Elisabeth Tova Bailey shows us in her book, is not a purely abstract and intellectual one; it can be emotional and visceral, an encounter with the wild Other followed by the realization that we and the Other are kindred travelers. Such experiences can radically affect our lives, changing how we perceive our place in the world, perhaps even turning us into naturalists. As E. O. Wilson describes this transformative process in his memoir, Naturalist, “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.”
The journey into nature begins wherever we are. For this author, new discoveries sometimes await in the branches of a rosemary bush, growing just outside his home office window. Songbirds often shelter there, and at other times, a praying mantis may be glimpsed, poised and motionless, waiting for an insect to wander by. The immediate world around us is full of mystery enough to occupy our days. This is a deep understanding that John Burroughs recognized, and that Elisabeth Tova Bailey also realized and shares with us in her book. Not surprisingly, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished work in the field of natural history in 2011. To learn more about her four-year process of writing the book, or to listen to a recording of a wild snail eating, the reader can visit the author’s website, www.elisabethtovabailey.net. Her book is available at Amazon.com as well as through many other online booksellers and independent bookstores.