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Review of Patrik Svensson, The Book of Eels

Riddle me this: What is only a few millimeters long with a transparent body like a gossamer willow leaf, is born in the Sargasso Sea and then floats for three years on the Gulf Stream  until it reaches Europe or America?

Here’s another:  What sea creatures does Rachel Carson describe as looking like “thin glass rods, shorter than a finger”?

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The first is the larval stage of eel development; the second the Glass Eel metamorphosis when they arrive in the estuaries of Europe and America after being borne for as much as three years along ocean currents.  They move up fresh water rivers to become Yellow Eels, a phase which can last thirty or forty years.  Then, in their final or Silver Eel phase, they bulk up with muscle and fat and develop reproductive organs in preparation for their return to the Sargasso Sea.    

Patrick Svensson’s The Book of Eels (New York: HarperCollins 2019) translated from Swedish by Agnes Broomé) is a delightfully engaging volume including scientific details about the European eel (Anguilla Anguilla ), a history of eel science,  eel  gastronomy,  autobiographical chapters about eel fishing with his father, anthropological takes on historic Swedish fishing communities, and an analysis of Rachel Carson’s role in nature writing and environmental action. 

Starting with Aristotle and including a fresh take on Freud’s years of eel research in Trieste, Svensson surveys the hundreds of years that it took scientists to determine the Sargasso Sea as the point of origin.  Even so, no scientist has ever demonstrated where eels go once they arrive and what they do in the depths of the ocean (reproduction is merely a logical assumption from the appearance of the larval eels).  Not a single mature Silver Eel in the reproductive phase has ever been found there.

Svensson’s autobiographical chapters recount the tender (though reserved) bonding between his father and himself on their life-long eeling forays.

My own encounters with eels did not bring me closer to my mother.  Fond of roasted eel, she sent me out to wrestle with the Silver Eels heading out into the Atlantic. I fished for those thrashing horrors, alive with muscle and resistance. from the dock with my drop line, hoping for a flounder or even a blowfish (we ignored their fierce faces and feasted on their tails) instead.  I dreaded finding an eel on my line because they didn’t drown in air like ordinary fish, but kept throwing themselves about on the dock, living breathing nightmares until, consumed by dread and remorse, I bashed them over the head with a hammer.

When I complained, my father came out from behind his pipe and newspaper long enough to explain that eels breathe air while slithering overland; Svensson describes them braiding themselves into balls and rolling over mud flats, breathing for those few minutes. They hibernate by burrowing down in the mud for the winter.   That is why Aristotle, one of the first to analyze eels scientifically, thought they were born through some process of mud metamorphosis. 

The Patuxet caught hibernating eels by wriggling their toes in the mud, a technique, Svensson informs us, that Tisquantum (Squanto) taught the Pilgrims after their first terrible winter.  As my mother’s family were from Plymouth, I have wondered if her appetite for eels derived from that historical tutelage.

Though he recognizes that Rachel Carson’s anthropomorphizing the eel  in Under the Sea-Wind is heretical to her scientific duty as an objective marine biologist, he admires the  leap of imagination she takes to arouse her reader’s sympathy: she “let the eel be an eel, but also something we can to some degree identify with” until it still  “a mystery, but no longer a complete stranger.”  In letting eels tell their own story, she “did manage to reach a kind of understanding that really shouldn’t be possible. Not through reductionism or empiricism or even science’s traditional belief in truth as it appears under the microscope, but by having faith in an ability that may in fact be unique to humans: imagination.”  It is by means of this heretical blending of science and story-telling that Carson galvanized a whole environmental movement.

Glenn Wolff and Jerry Dennis, A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame

Svensson finds the eel as so utterly distant from human comprehension as to become a metaphysical conundrum.  He rejects Decartes’ assertions that only humans possess souls and  that all other creatures are automata. He disagrees with the proposition that animals have no consciousness.   Defying scientific empiricism, he apprehends the eel’s place in the complex particularity of nature as a metaphysical conundrum, defining metaphysics as “not necessarily concerned with God” but with the “whole of reality, . . a branch of philosophy that is concerned with what exists outside, or beyond, objective nature, beyond what we can observe and describe with the help of our senses.”  He raises such questions as

  • What is time to the Silver Eel in the ocean depths beneath the Sargasso Sea?  
  • Does time possess a different duration at the bottom of the sea?   
  • Is time the same or different for the eel in each phase of its life?
  • What about bats, whose world consists entirely of echoes and is, therefore, “clearly in a completely different state of consciousness from a human”?  

Svensson entrances us with the eel’s life cycle only to horrify us with the extinction he foresees for the very species he has taught us to admire. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,  the joy in nature evoked in us by The Book of Eels  resolves into anticipatory grief.  Is this an intentional ploy to stir us to environmental activism?  This seems to have been the case for Rachel Carson, who went before Congress with a testimony that led to the eventual banning of DDT.  

But Svensson  has no hope for the eel’s future.  Though the European Union has proposed rules to sustain fisheries, fishing communities fail to comply with them. When he adds shifts in ocean currents caused by global warming to his gloomy predictions, there seems nothing left but the eel’s extinction.

I am a perennially hopeful person, so after finishing The Book of Eels I wondered if eel conservation efforts were really going as badly as Svensson indicates.  I  found some (small) comfort in a few items:

  • In Europe), there is indeed reluctance on the part of European Fisheries to comply with new regulations, and also an uptick in eel smuggling.  The Ecologist reports, however,  that in the twelve years since the European Commission proposed its eel conservation program some progress has been achieved.

“In 2007, the political decision to protect the eel was taken in Brussels; in 2009, the  very first (silver) eels began to be protected; in 2011 (two years of ocean migrations later), the first positive effect occurred.       Since 2011, the thirty-year decline in recruitment of young eel from the ocean halted, turning into a slight increase.”  

Svensson disagrees with this conclusion on the basis that the European Union ban only applies for three months of the year and not to the Glass Eel:  at 2017 rates of compliance, the eel population will continue to decline and, he insists, inevitably become extinct.

“It will take a long time to achieve the full recovery,” the Ecologist article concludes. “The level of protection for the eel is not yet as good as we intended to achieve. Overall, however, the trend is as positive as could have been expected.”

  • What about  Glass Eels?

 The Sustainable Eel Group,  a Europe-wide conservation and science-led organization working  to accelerate the eel’s recovery, reports success in removing  barriers to migration. Norfolk’s Fritton Lake, where businesses and eel sustainability groups have given “the critically endangered European Eel hope for the future,” is an example:  

”Fritton Lake is ideal habitat for eels. It is connected to the sea just south of Great Yarmouth. However, the previous tidal sluice, to keep sea water out, was also stopping baby eels getting in from the sea and adult eels getting out. The new sluice will let baby eels in, to grow in Fritton Lake to become adults, which will then get out again to breed. The eels will grow there for between 5 and 20 years before migrating back to sea to spawn.”

In Cornwall,  similarly,  eel passes have been  built around obstructions: more than 100 juvenile eels travelled 3,000km from the Sargasso Sea before being counted at the Environment Agency’s Brownshill Staunch eel pass, downstream of St Ives.

  • As a final note of hope, significant numbers of Eels have been restored to the Susquehanna river in America, where fish biologists of the Susquehanna River Commission catch eels at a dam that obstructs their route and then transport them upstream.

“The captured eels were measured, counted and shipped north where they were released into Deer Creek and Conestoga Creek. Over the next eight years, fish and wildlife would capture, transport and release more than 800,000 eels into the Susquehanna River or its tributaries….in total, close to a million eels have been re-introduced into the river since the program began. The American Eel is back.”           

In looking through the reviews, I see that conservationists are taking a deep interest in The Book of Eels.  Maybe Svensson’s simultaneously raising our joy in nature only to send us crashing into despair over eel apocalypse will shock us into action, with as significant an impact on the eel as Carson’s DDT studies had on the Osprey?

 I live in hope.

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