“How ingenious an animal is a snail….When it falls in with a bad neighbor it takes up its house, and moves off.”
--Philemon, 3rd or 4th century B.C. Athenian poetElisabeth Tova Bailey lives on the
|WHAT LIPS MY LIPS HAVE KISSED, AND WHERE, AND WHY, I HAVE FORGOTTEN....|
She discovered all kinds of fascinating facts about snails. Her snail possessed 2,640 teeth that, as Aristotle noted, were "sharp, and small, and delicate." "The teeth point inward so as to give the snail a firm grasp on its food; with about 33 teeth per row and maybe eighty or so rows, they form a multitoothed ribbon called a radula, which works much like a rasp. This explained my snail's nodding head as it grated away at a mushroom; it also explained the odd squareness of the holes I had discovered in my envelopes and lists." Snails can build a little door for themselves out of mucous and snugly shut themselves in for the winter. They have an elaborate and even seemingly tender mating ritual which in certain species involves, I kid you not, the mutual manufacture and launching of “tiny, beautifully made arrows of calcium carbonate” which are stored in a kind of built-in quiver. One of my favorite chapters was the one entitled "Marvelous Spirals." "Even when my snail was asleep, I loved to gaze at the beautiful spiral of its shell. It was a tiny, brilliant accomplishment of architecture, and because the radius of the spiral increases exponentially as it progresses, it fits the definition of a logarithmic or an equiangular spiral. Also known as the marvelous spiral"... She notes the many similarities between her and her snail: the pace at which they move; the way they're both having to adapt to changed environments. As the book progressed, I was afraid the snail would die: instead, it laid several clutches of eggs (snails are hermaphroditic, with a gestation period of 6-8 months) and gave birth to 118 baby snails.
|DELPHINIUMS FROM THE PERENNIAL BORDER IN ELISABETH TOVA BAILEY'S GARDEN (Photo from the author's collection and used with her permission:elisabethtovabailey.net)|
We may know little of Elisabeth's background but we come to know a great deal about her largeness of soul. She retained her sense of humor through what must have been almost unimaginable suffering and stress. She is utterly devoid of self-pity, which, under the circumstances, seems at least as marvelous as an equiangular spiral. All that talk of spirals somehow reminded of Santa Fe's Loretto Chapel and the "Miraculous Staircase" which, constructed (inexplicably) of non-native wood, and without a single nail--only hand-carved wooden pegs--makes two complete 360-degree turns with no visible means of support. In 1878, the story goes, the cash-poor nuns, realizing the planned stairs to the choir loft of the new chapel weren't going to fit, made a novena to St. Joseph. Within days, an anonymous carpenter had ridden up on a donkey. Using only a saw, a hammer, and a square, over a period of six months he built the wondrous spiral staircase, then refused all payment and disappeared, never to be seen again.
Like the anonymous carpenter, Elisabeth Tova Bailey worked with the simplest of tools: her wits and her questing spirit. Like the anonymous carpenter, she disappeared into the background--allowing the lowly but splendid snail to take center stage--and built a lasting monument to goodness, beauty, and truth. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating restores your faith, just in case it was faintly wavering, in publishing...and the miraculous power of prose...and life.