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The swoosh of frigid air within a hearty welcome jump-started my cane-waking as we pulled open the automatic door at the Y. It was almost too much, my helper supporting my upper arm, until steadied.

Seated upon a plastic chair in the lobby, her thin arms leaning against her housekeeping trolley, she had belted, “Hi! Back again, I see! Good for you!”—the words still echoed down the corridor, her image fixed in my heart: her wide toothless grin, her round eyes accustomed to seeing deeply, her pixie-braided-head jiggling with delight, her bosom creating peaks and valleys beneath her blue uniform shirt. Veined hands still bore the imprint of hard work, from all times.

In a split second, she had revealed her seasoned spirit of having been tossed around Life’s washing machine—when it worked.

I will not forget.

“I honestly don’t think I could have made it, without the woodland snail…If life mattered to the snail and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on.”

So wrote this courageous woman, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, to her doctor in one of the concluding chapters of her natural history/memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (2010). Years before, this brown mollusk had found its home atop the violet plant; it was a friend’s gift, following her treatment of a neurological pathogen with life-threatening paralysis from which she never fully recovered.

The next morning, surprise gripped her: Something had chomped square holes into the postcard leaning against the lamp on her bedside table. Further scrutiny revealed the snail in its shell, asleep, beneath one of the petals of the plant.

A quick mind, she had to know more about this companion, as well as the disease wasting her formerly athletic body: both alien to her. Research into both redirected energy overwhelmed by feelings of uselessness and isolation. While the snail slept days, Bailey propped up books on pillows and studied; nights, while awake, she watched the snail’s behaviors, at first around the violet plant, and later in a large glass aquarium filled with mosses, ferns, and other greenery compatible with the Maine woods nearby.

Bailey’s studies taught her to articulate the interspecies relationship between humans and snails, to cultivate and care for her snail and its offspring, to publish short stories and essays in scholarly reviews, and to screen poets and writers for their reference of snails that she quotes in her memoir.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, also translated in German, is reaching an international audience in the fields of literature, natural history, medical humanities, and education.

But it’s the woman Elisabeth Tova Bailey behind the simple who touches hearts.

Available on Amazon

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