Next time you are around a Buddha statue—any Buddha statue—look closely at what you may have missed before. Those curlicues on his head are not some stylized coiffure, but rank upon rank of snails. Legend has it that one day the young ascetic Shakyamuni was meditating shaven-headed under the blazing Indian sun. The snails, concerned that he might be overdoing it with his austerities, crawled from near and far, up his bony frame to congregate on his head, making of themselves a cool, slimy cap, perhaps saving him from sunstroke.
Likewise, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, a woman in our time, was saved by a snail, if not in body then in spirit. Bedridden with a complex autoimmune system disorder, she was given a snail from the woods along with a spray of field violets by a well-meaning friend. Why? Her friend thought the snail might add some diversion to a life lived between antiseptic white walls with none but human visitors, and those sometimes not so many. But a snail to Bailey had always seemed like a dull creature nearly beneath notice, and besides, in her condition, the responsibility for keeping it alive seemed overwhelming. But not having the energy to reject it, she dutifully accepted the gift, and had it placed in a jar on her nightstand. That day, having nothing better to do, she watched it crawl about, up the inside of the jar and tentatively, with horns probing, down the other side. The next morning she checked to find that the snail was back in its jar, sleeping under a violet leaf, and on an envelope she had propped up against the jar, she noticed a mysterious square hole. Had the snail fed on the envelope? Over the next several nights, her senses sharpened to the movements of her companion. One night she was amazed to hear something that she had never heard before: “The sound was of someone very small munching a piece of celery continuously.”
Her curiosity piqued, she consulted a natural history text on snails (of which there turned out to be more than the layperson would imagine) to discover that her snail had 2,640 teeth in 80 rows of 33 that it used to rasp away at its dinners—thus the square hole. One observation and research led to another, as the snail slowly, slowly drew her into its world. Tolerance passed into curiosity, and curiosity into dependence in the very best sense, one lone creature warming in the company of another: “It was adding a welcome focus to my life, and I couldn’t think how otherwise I would have passed the hours.”
And so began the relationship of a woman and a snail that . . . but I don’t want to spoil it for you. This book of insight, science and poetry, and scientific poetry (in one of her texts she comes across “a powerfully alliterative phrase that stuck in my head: ‘the macromolecular structure of molluscan mucus’)” is, ironically, a page-turner, with all the draw of a detective story as Bailey tracks down the pathogen that is wreaking havoc with her body, and all the heart throb of a romance as she becomes more and more entranced with her companion.
The most charming aspect of the book for this Buddhist reader is that nowhere in its pages is to be found explicit allusion to Buddhism, unless one counts the haiku poets who head up a number of chapters. And yet, if the Buddha were reading it (intimate as he already was with snails), I’m sure he would have the eye to see import that sometimes gets lost in the codification of his teachings. For me, reading Wild Snail feels like returning to Buddha’s original teaching: the advantage of limitation, enforced or foisted, and the concentration it brings; the harsh and unavoidable truths of sickness, old age and death; the permeability of one self, one species with another, even when those selves appear utterly foreign to each other; the sentience and absolute value of each and every of the 10,000 things.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is not necessarily for the ill, although in the process of writing this review I happen to have developed pneumonia, and Bailey’s example helped to free me from the drastically reduced scale of my world. The book is not necessarily for snail lovers, although it will surely inspire anyone to look more closely at the world underfoot. Neither is it about information or adventure, although there are plenty of both. Fundamentally, it’s about all that we don’t know but might discover if we slowed down and listened. How in the world did I get here, the human? And how did it arrive here with me, the snail? Issa, one of the book’s chapter opening poets, puts it, with the same innocent sweetness that runs, or crawls, through these pages:
at my feet
when did you get here