Over a recent breakfast, a friend and neighbor who has another home in his wife’s native Sweden asked what books I had read recently. Beaverland topped my list at the time and in response to my enthusiasm Alan quickly suggested a work about eels, written by a Swedish journalist.
At that very moment my mother turned over in her grave.
Eels are fish that look like snakes, and anything that was or even looked like a snake was immediately suspect in mother’s eyes. She had a deathly fear of reptiles, which was a bit weird since she was born in the country. The first house I remember from my childhood sat next to a large farm where Mr. Breeden occasionally stopped plowing with his mules to whack some unsuspecting snake in two with his hoe. Mother was happy, I believe, when we built a larger house “in town.”
Because Alan is a thoughtful, curious, and widely read friend, I took his recommendation seriously. Which is how I ended up reading about this odd and beguiling creature.
The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World (2021) by Patrik Svensson is one man’s attempt to get to the bottom of what scientists and philosophers have for centuries dubbed as “the eel question.” Very little is actually known about the European or American eel, except that they are somehow mysteriously spawned in the Sargasso Sea, a constantly shifting part of the Atlantic Ocean bounded by four great ocean currents. I say mysterious because no one has actually ever seen eels mating or giving birth. The first glimpse we get of them is as tiny willow leaf-shaped larvae only a few centimeters in length floating along in the great ocean current until some — for some unknown reason — peel off to live in North America and others head to the Mediterranean, the coastal waters of Northern Europe, or Scandinavia. There they undergo their first metamorphosis transforming into the glass eel, followed rather quickly by another transformation into the yellow eel. We still don’t understand what drives them, after living for decades in freshwater, to change once again to a silver eel and swim great distances back to the ocean at the end of their lives. Even in an age of great scientific discovery they remain a mystery.
Which makes them utterly fascinating and a great subject for a writer who wants to explore what it means to live in a world full of questions we can’t always answer.
Svensson’s book has different attributes, much like its subject. Several times during a life that can easily last decades, the eel goes through a metamorphosis to adopt to new conditions or new stages of life. Eels can be on dry land for hours, look limp and dead, and yet revive in just a few minutes after being put back into water. And for their final act eels grow sexual organs only at their last stage of life when they prepare to return to the Sargasso Sea, presumably to mate deep in the ocean waters and die. Likewise, Svensson’s book is at times a work of natural history. Until it becomes a memoir about his childhood growing up catching eels with his father. Then it may become a study of literature and philosophy. At other times he considers how climate change is leading to the coming extinction of the eel as well as many other forms of life. And this professed unbeliever nonetheless sees something spiritual about the eel and our fascination with it.
All of which makes Svensson’s work engrossing and multi-dimensional. Just like his subject.
In some ways, Svensson has written a lament for the eel as well as for a childhood where his father — a road construction worker — taught him valuable lessons of life. He mourns the loss of both, as well as the loss of our planet as we destroy it through hyper industrialization. And he hears the land mourn in response.
Ecologist, writer, and Congregationalist pastor Andi Lloyd has written about the way the earth mourns. In the Hebrew Bible, she writes, “mourning is an expansive practice.”
The people mourn, of course, but so do the land, the pastures, and the deep springs. Even gates and walls lament. The Hebrew verb abal, translated here [in Hosea] as “mourn,” also carries the meaning “to dry up, to wither.” Where a widow might put ashes on her head, the land and pastures and springs mourn by withering and drying up—all ways of speaking aloud the truth of inward grief.
Therein lies the power of lament: to speak the truth that all is not well. Walter Brueggemann writes that grief, spoken aloud, is “the counter to denial.” Lament is prophetic speech. It bears faithful witness to all that is not right with the world and to all that is not right with ourselves.
Svensson’s capturing the lament of our planet through the story of the eel speaks to what Lloyd notes as a foundational ecological truth: when one part of creation goes awry, the whole suffers. “The land’s grief at what the people have done points to the fundamental reality of our interconnection.”
With the eel, we may not understand how this creature lives and dies, but in that mystery lies answers about our true understanding of the world. Philosophers and scientists from Aristotle to Rachel Carson have studied eels, and Carson captured her fascination in a letter to her publisher.
I know many people shudder at the sight of an eel. To me … to see an eel is something like meeting a person who has traveled to the most remote and wonderful places of the earth; in a flash I see a vivid picture of the strange places the eel has been — places which I, being merely human, can never visit.
Science has taught us much and has brought us never-before-seen comforts, but we should respect the mystery that the eel represents. There is something sacred there that can lead to greater understanding.
More to come…
Alan Gregerman, who recommended the book to me, wrote the following on my LinkedIn post:
“David – Greetings and glad you found “The Book of Eels” to be interesting. It is very popular in Sweden, can be read on many levels, and really challenges us to think about what it means to be human in a world filled with remarkable creatures. Cheers, Alan“