Questions and Answers With Elisabeth Tova Bailey, author of the book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. 

–First a few preliminaries:  I wonder how your health is at the moment (readers will want to know, but of course I don’t want to intrude), and what perhaps what you are working on/writing about currently? 

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating was launched a year ago and it is still keeping me very busy. My energy is very limited so I am pretty much just keeping up with interviews like this one and reviewing forthcoming translation details and, I am happy to say, an upcoming audio book. I did finish one new essay, “A Green Kingdom Deep in Winter: The Bedside Terrarium,” which came out this winter in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine (also available on my website as a pdf file). I am exploring some interesting spin-off projects involving medical humanities and natural history, but it’s still too early to say much about those directions.

Thanks for asking about my health. Chronic neurological conditions are always challenging to live with, unpredictable and physically limiting.

–Has the experience with your snail had a lasting impact on how you see the world, how you live your life? In what ways?

The snail as a whole animal astounded me. What appears at first to be a simple creature turned out to have a very full existence: an epicurean appetite, an appreciation of comfortable places, an unexpectedly interesting love life, skilled locomotion, complex defense mechanisms—that’s what was so riveting. That I could write an entire chapter on slime and another entire chapter on the way a snail hibernates—I learned that every creature, no matter its size, has a story as unique and detailed as our own.

I found myself envious of many snail traits. What human would not want to climb straight up a wall, glide across a ceiling or have ten times the strength? If we could hibernate when times were tough think how useful that would be! Yes, we humans may run faster than a snail, but we can’t glide across a ceiling. Why is one of those skills any better than the other? So to find myself envying the snail put the limits of my own species into perspective, and that remains humbling.

My experience with the snail continues to bring me new learning curves in countless ways. As the book makes its way around the world, it stretches me as a writer and a person. Given the moving letters I receive from readers, the snail’s influence is now spreading well beyond my own life to touch the lives of thousands of others.

I now think more about species equality. Though of course any species, including humans, can get out of hand and cause damage, but we are all on this earth together and each species brings to the table a unique set of traits and abilities. There is probably much more for us to learn from another species from a different animal group than from our own.

–At one point in the book, you tell yourself:  “I must always remember the snail, always remember the snail…” Do you? And in what ways are the memories and lessons lasting and with you today?

I’ve always been connected to the natural world and have lived in rural areas most of my adult life. So I wouldn’t say that my interspecies relationship with a snail changed my understanding of life but that it has deepened and expanded it. My bond with the snail made it clear to me however that humans are not the most important species on earth, we are just one of more than 8.7 million living species.

My experience with the snail brought home how human-centric our species is while simultaneously increasing my respect for other species. By the time I finished my book I was aware of both how fragile life is—99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct, but also how tough and adaptable life forms can be. Gastropods have evolved over millions of years, surviving or reevolving after mass extinctions, successfully colonizing nearly the whole world.

–Have you had any reports from friends who have adopted some of the offspring of your snail about their experiences? Have they had similar experiences? 

My friends who adopted snails did enjoy watching them, but I think their kids spent more time watching the adoptees then their parents did. Kids have more time and patience and bond quickly with animals. They also have an abundant amount of natural curiosity.

–I’m especially interested in what you think the lessons of the snail are for urbanites, for cities, for urban living. Can nature like this in cities help us to lead happier, healthier lives?  And can your intimate and compelling story serve as a reason and rationale for planners and designers to better take nature into account? Are there ways that cities could be seen to hold the keys, to hold the opportunities for renewal, inspiration, connection with nature, rather than understood, as they often are, as places antithetical to nature?

Bringing the natural world back into cities and urban dwellings is essential. The natural world—with its millions of species—literally keeps us alive, providing the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the building materials that create our living spaces. To cloister ourselves in urban areas, far from other life forms is asking for disaster. Since cities hold the densest human populations, they are the perfect avenue for renewal and reeducation. Every bit of “wild” brought into a city helps improve everything from soil and air quality to the happiness of the people who live there.

The terrarium that sustained me was so small, and yet it was enough. So anything planners and designers can do to add elements of the natural world to urban areas will have a healthy ripple effect. A garden in the country will be seen by few people, but a garden in the city will be seen by countless passersby. We should create planning and design laws that increase the amount of green space in urban areas. And I don’t just mean increase the actual footage of a project, but also increase the green use of existing footage. Vertical and rooftop gardens and bat habitats are perfect examples. Every empty lot is a mini Eden waiting to happen. Luckily the air is full of seeds and micro organisms and continues to bring new inhabitants even to urban areas. But city planners and designers can help nature get a footing more quickly and less randomly. Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us is a fascinating look at just how quickly wilderness could more fully inhabit an urban area, given the chance. I am reminded of a New Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten, “One by One,” in which a graduate student, Marko Pecarevic, began to study ants in New York city street medians. He discovered that they held biodiverse life and he began to document their inhabitants which varied median to median. Different ant species had taken over and adapted to different medians.

–There are of course many wondrous things around us in cities, but a challenge is how we entice or induce residents to see them, to pay attention to them. How might we cultivate in cities a greater awareness of the nature around?

I think it’s quite simple. If you plant a tree, someone will come and sit in the shade. If you plant a garden with color and aromatic plants, someone will see it and smell it. If you have a garden, butterflies and other insects will arrive. I don’t think enticement is necessary, rather it’s simply a matter of supplying the wildness. If it’s designed well, it will be irresistible. Anything that increases plantings in urban areas, inside, outside, on top of, or up a wall, creates habitats for other species, micro and macro, and the result will engage our human species. The idea of species equality may be another starting point from which to consider urban biophilia.

–EO Wilson talks a great deal about the “micro-wildernesses”; there are many around us, of course, yet we have a bias, it seems, for larger, highly visible, highly cuddleable critters, and an aversion to the littler life (e.g. invertebrates) around us. How do we overcome these biases? Can we?

Since our species depends particularly heavily on sight, it is natural that we have a bias. It’s also probably natural to feel a closer affinity for our own mammal animal group, particularly those animals we invite into our house, cats and dogs, since they have learned to follow our rules, to a large extent. For people to appreciate “micro-wilderness” it will take a combination of experience in the field and/or lab and education.

Readers of my book are astonished (as was I) that there is so much to the life of a snail. As our understanding of the “micro-wilderness” increases, we do become intrigued. Especially when we realize that our lives depend on these tiniest of creatures—blue-green algae is responsible for the oxygen we breathe, snails, like worms, contribute to the earth’s soil, this understanding can bring about respect for creatures we previously disregarded.

While I am happy I am not covered with slime—slime certainly turns out to be fascinating if one explores its amazing properties. Slime contains healing enzymes, is part of a snail’s defense system, is used for hydraulic locomotion, and for determining friend or foe as well as for mating and egg laying. Once you understand its properties, well then you have to respect a creature that can make such a substance.

–Some would argue that we have a tendency to privilege the visual or ocular to the neglect of the other senses. What captured your attention about the snail first (and thus the book’s title) was the sounds of it eating. Your story is remarkable for what it suggests about what we could or might hear if (again) we only listened…But few us really listen, and perhaps we need to re-learn that skill as well?

While the snail intrigued me when I watched it glide along, it was the sound of its eating that really captured my heart. The creature had an appetite and even a palate and that made me curious, how much more was there to know about it? A lot as it turned out. Any animal sound has a powerful impact for humans because sound is the basis for our own communication.

The challenge may not be that humans need to relearn the skill of listening, but that our world is just too noisy so we rarely hear natural sounds. If noise pollution in urban areas was reduced, then the quieter natural sounds such as the wind, rain, bird song, and insects noises would be heard more easily. People mask out urban sound by listening to ipods and electronic devices. Perhaps if the world were quieter there’d be need to mask it out.

It just so happened that in the room where I convalesced, it was very quiet. There was no computer or refrigerator humming and the snail happened to be eating something that crunched. Otherwise I could not have heard the snail eating.

While some of the challenge of noise pollution falls to engineers, planners and designers can work to reduce noise levels as well. Hospitals are horribly noisy, particularly at night. Sleep, which is critical to the healing process, is nearly impossible in hospitals because of noise interruptions from iv beepers, medical pagers, and an environment that is not designed to buffer noise.

–You dedicate your book to biophilia. Is this or should this be a central concept in how we design and arrange our modern lives? Implications for designers and planners?

It has already been shown in numerous studies, many of which you mention in your book Biophilic Cities, that exposure to natural views and settings increases health and positive feelings. Then why wouldn’t we jump on this information and expand those elements in our lives? If there were a drug or supplement that promised a 10% improvement in happiness and health, everyone would be buying it. Designers and planners want happy clients, they want the town or house they design to be appreciated. If adding or making better use of green spaces, increases biophilia naturally, leading to happier clients then I would think that designers and planners would want biophilia to be central to all their plans. They are in a leadership role—this is an ironic expression—to “pave the way.” I’ll change that to “plant the way.” My terrarium was tiny, even little bits of “wild” can make a big difference in urban and housing design.

–There is an interesting juxtaposing between your connection with the woodland snail and the occasional mention of your dog (and cats), which you clearly love. One wonders whether what you get from or learn from the snail, i.e. the solace, support, companionship, etc., is of a different sort than what can be enjoyed by having domestic pets? In cities of course there is much native biodiversity, but also many not-so-native domestic pets (I was recently told that in San Francisco there are more dogs than children, and this represents an issue for some in planning).

That’s a very interesting observation. We are more familiar with our own mammal animal group then with non mammal species. We have invited cats and dogs into our human world and we like to think that we understand them, though of course they would likely disagree. They live within our version of the world, following human rules, even being trained.

What was so intriguing about the snail was that I knew nothing about it. For that reason I was both more in awe of its non mammalian abilities and more respectful of its differences. Because I could not directly “play” with the snail—interacting with it the way one might with a cat or dog—it kept me fully in observation and learning mode. That was interesting. There are things one can learn about another species of our same animal group, such as a whale or dog or fox (all very different types of mammals, marine, wild, and domesticated) but there are very different things to learn from non-mammal animal groups, in this case the mollusca, which can expand our perspective on life.

–You reflect on time in many places in the book—because of your illness, having too much time, your friends not having enough and wishing you could share it, for example. I wonder how much of our disconnect from nature is a function of actual or perceived limits to time, the sense that we are too harried and hurried to pay attention to the small and fascinating things around us? This may be true, but not clear what we are able to do about it. Perhaps we need to re-think our notions of time, our commitments to certain time-consumptive activities, and otherwise creatively find the time necessary to be attentive nature and our deeper emotional and spiritual needs. I wonder then what your experiences tell us about how to treat these questions of limited time? 

We can’t change or control the passage of time. Our species has evolved to be fairly fast paced, though not as continually busy as ants or as fleet as a cheetah, still we move more quickly than a snail. We have evolved to function at the speed that we do—some might say we’ve been speeding up the in the last century.

Time is always challenging in our lives, but just as adding nature doesn’t always mean adding more square feet to a project but instead can involve utilizing an area more fully. So the same can happen with the time challenge. Why run in a gym if you can run outside in a beautiful area? You may get fresher air to breath, more vitamin D, and more positive impact from a wild landscape. So if urban areas could be made lush and biophiliac, like many of the communities in your lovely film The Nature of Cities, then I think the time element would be less of a problem. We wouldn’t need extra time to find the wild. It would just be there, on the way to work, plants inside the office, the view out the window, plants inside and outside our houses, on our roofs. My bedside terrarium is a perfect example. It didn’t change the speed of time around me, it simply enhanced the time I spent. If a view out a window makes a worker happier then those few minutes of view watching will pay off as happier workers are more productive.

–Are there steps that could be taken (public policies even?) that would help others in times of stress to have the similar comforts that your snail provided to you?

I am not sure if you are referring here to general life challenges or the specific challenges of being ill? Yes, public polices to promote wild in cities would be great!!!! Tax incentives to encourage home owners to grow gardens would also be great and could help “clean up” air and soil pollution.

–You learned much about the fascinating natural history and biology of this snail species, but the importance of this kind of knowledge seems in decline, there seems relatively little interest in natural history among the young, and while we may be good at teaching molecular biology we seem much less interested in things like ornithology, herpetology, etc. Is this a problem?

Any child properly introduced to a natural setting at a young age is going to be intrigued by the sensory and physical nature of their surroundings. We tend to separate science into compartments: biology and geology and chemistry but why not teach a class on biophilia? Why not make a biophilia program mandatory throughout the educational system? You have developed a test for college students to see if they can identify plants and animals. If they fail that test it is not their fault, it is result of having grown up deprived of the natural world. One can learn about wild things through experience and/or through education. You can know a certain type of butterfly and not know its name—a name is just one way to know a creature and not necessarily the best way. But you can’t know the creature at all, if you’ve never seen or heard of it. Reality TV has been a big hit. What we need to offer now are Real Life Biophilic Experiences.

As the sciences become ever more highly specialized, the need for an interdisciplinary approach becomes ever more crucial. We can’t make sense of highly specialized scientific findings unless we can put them into a larger context. Biophilia provides that context.

–What are the lessons of SWSE for our medical system and the kinds of healing experiences and environments patients have (or don’t)? We have just started a new Center for Design and Health here: I wonder what advice would you give us about what to focus on, what to research, where our priorities should go?

Biophilia is intensely needed in health care settings. Ironically, hospital settings where compassion and empathy should be essential are often the most barren and sterile—“anti-biophilia”—places we ever encounter. Given our society’s lack of communication skills around illness, patients need even more to have the solace of natural window views, gardens to walk in, terrariums at their bedside, and “therapy” animals.

The natural world is a buffer and stress reducer for a healthy person, but once someone is ill—and illness can not simply be avoided with a good diet, exercise and luck as there are genetics and constantly evolving pathogens— then biophilia can literally become life-sustaining, as it was for me.

Outdoor landscapes and window views are easy ways to improve a hospital or nursing home stay. But most hospital rooms are laid out to benefit a patient’s visitors, not the patient themselves. Beds are placed away from windows so that medical staff can get to all sides of a bed. There may be some easy solutions, mirrors on the wall that are adjustable, for instance, or a bed that is on a track so it can easily be moved closer to or further from a window. It would be terrific to bring more plants into hospital buildings. There are some challenges with this due to bacteria and mold concerns. This is an interesting area which needs further exploration.

The terrarium was actually the accidental invention of a 19th century surgeon. Dr. Ward’s invention revolutionized the botanical world, but he was most excited about its use for his patients. Because it is an enclosed space, the terrarium can theoretically be safe even in a sterile setting. Dr. Ward also wrote about how useful the terrarium could be for people at low incomes who could not afford a second home in the country! He recognized the critical need for biophilia and how important the natural environment was in reducing stress. I wrote about Dr. Ward and his historic invention in my essay mentioned earlier “A Green World Deep in Winter: The Bedside Terrarium.”

–As a writer, what is the role of literature in helping to awaken us to the wonder, fascination and healing power of the nature around us.    

Literature plays a complex and unique role in our human lives. We know that it can help shape our thinking, increase our understanding, and help us process our own personal experiences, leading to new perspectives. Literature allows us to be in the wilderness imaginatively, bringing some of the same positive benefits as being in the real natural world. And it may cause us to put down the book and actually walk outside to experience that real world around us. I spent four years researching and writing about my snail. My book, the summation of all that time, can now be read in a few hours, imparting all I learned to thousands of readers. So literature has actually become a part of our ongoing human intellectual and social evolution; it can impact the thinking of generations.

–What will it take for urbanites to care about other life forms and nature? One premise of your book seems to be that the more you know about a species, the more intensely familiar you are with it, the more fascinating its life becomes, and ultimately the more you will care about its existence. Is this a fair assumption?

I can’t tell you how many readers e-mail me about how they will never look at a snail the same way. So education through literature is clearly critical. Urbanites are more likely to learn from a book (or even from google and wikipedia) then to venture outside to observe the reality behind what they read. It’s a matter of bringing the wild back into the cities along with educational offerings and supportive literature so that biophilia becomes a common and every day word. At the moment the word biophilia is not even in my on-line dictionary! Perhaps we need to lobby for a national Biophilia Day—have a picnic lunch with another animal species—and don’t eat them. In addition to offering sick pay at a job, perhaps a boss should offer “health pay” an incentive to encourage workers to spend time in a natural setting.

 –There is an important biomimicry dimension to your discussion of the snail, and you point out some of the ways that the powers and abilities of the snail might be used or modeled for human purposes. Could cities learn from these amazing qualities of nature (e.g. are there urban applications of our deep knowledge about the slime?)…Role of biomimicry in design of cities? 

Biomimicry has existed for as long as multiple species have existed. Countless species mimic each other simply to stay alive, find mates, and avoid predators. Spiral staircases and the Guggenheim are the most obvious examples of human’s using snail shell-based biomimicry. Slime—which a snail uses for its hydraulic method of locomotion—is now being researched for use in new technologies for colonoscopy equipment, as well as the creation of robots that can climb walls, and new types of glue.

For urban designers and planners I should think any increased understanding of the habitat and nesting and denning, and socialization habits of other species could be useful. How do ants make anthills so functional? How do bees communicate so productively? Everything humans have invented involves biomimicry as our imaginations are based on and stimulated by the natural world.

When we consider the millions of species that have all found unique ways to adapt and survive, often living in highly dense populations whether they are large species or micro species, then we realize that we have hardly begun to explore the biomimicry possibilities.