What the publisher says:
80-page hardback (illustrated throughout with artwork by P.R. Ruby). Steve Ely’s The European Eel is a long poem that imagines the life cycle, ecological contexts and enigma of the charismatic and critically endangered fish of the poem’s title. Based on Ely’s in-depth engagement with the scientific literature, discussions with leading eel researchers and conservationists, and hands-on experience with the eel in river systems across the country and abroad, The European Eel is unique not only in its sustained birth-to-death focus on the eel, but in the vivid way the eel’s riverine and marine habitats are evoked and articulated—and in its portrayal of the daunting array of anthropogenic threats that are currently threatening this once common species with extinction.
Extracts can be read here -as well as being able to buy a copy £12.99 +£1.99 P&P.
I have no knowledge worth sharing about fish. I know this is not the best way to start a review of Steve Ely’s amazing book. But I do have an endless fascination and some guilt when it comes to Eels. I will start with the guilt. More than the three birds eggs that made up my collection when I was eight, which I can never put back -Wren, House Sparrow and Greenfinch. Neither can I un-catch the Eels fished from their murky lairs.
What I think:
On a dry August day, whe Eels were much more common than they are today, an Uncle and I lifted the water trough of my Grandad’s chicken pen and found some damp ground; the only place we were likely to find any worms. We dug them, held them in a jam jar and and took them out in the cool of the evening to the Bannett and one of its reed lined pools just inside the sea bank at Blakeney, Norfolk. We managed to tempt two or possibly three unwieldy souls out of the ‘bottomless’ pond. He knew his wife, my aunt, would not want them so we took them to his mother. Alas, Nanny too did not want Eels for supper or any other meal. From the generation that wasted nothing, she boiled them, chopped them and fed them to the chickens. This should not have been the ending for these Eels.
And the endless fascination? While fishing I was given knowledge about this mythical beast and its travel to a mythical place -The Sargasso Sea to breed, as best my Uncle could remember it. I am pretty sure I also did see the results of this spawning as tiny elvers returned, but I cannot be sure.
Then came Rachel Carson -‘Under the Sea wind’ describing in the Autumn how an Eel who had lived the equivalent of more than half my life in Bittern Pond until the lure of the Ocean called. To me it was still remarkable that in the early 1900’s we had discovered the cycle of life adopted by Eels. and to think on the timescale of eons as to how evolution had worked on a species which even now we have not seen breed; just the results of such pairings. And like with so many other wild creatures we are watching in this 6th Extinction the demise of a species we still don’t fully understand.
I have previously bookmarked books about Eels but did not want to sift the science from another story of self exploration; however fascinating the science is, I was not going to plough through this? So thanks to a RT from @glaveneel I came across a link to the blog Steve wrote about his upcoming publication. He describes the perilous decline of the Eel, his fascination for it and the medium -book length poem, he is going to use to describe ‘The European Eel’. His previous exploration into this was Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah -life of the Willow Tit.
The book is divided into four parts. The first describes -in long poem form, the passage of the Eel from the Sargasso through the Humber to Yorkshire. The biology and the human created obstacles including the water borne pollution are described in a way that really gives a feel for how precious and fragile an Eels existence is.
Part two describes the Eel the author kept one summer before returning it to make its journey to the Sargasso. For sciece purposes this was the insight he needed. But for me it brought back some of the feeling of guilt about how we treat wild creatures as exhibits in our show.
Part three returns to the long poem and the Eels return to the sargasso to spawn and die. You get a reall feel for teh journey and how the body of the Eel goes from a fish we recognise to a vesicle for eggs or milt.
Part four explains some of the terms and also explains that we still do not know exactly the Eeels story. Much of the early development from and around spawning is supposition. The insight of part four does not detract from the story and infact enhanced my understanding.
Anyone who spends their own money on a book and then reviews it is always going to say its a great read. And this review is no different. If you have any interest in this secretive fish or the environment we are creating for it, and by inference us, get a copy. If you have any interest in considering the ecological state of our waters and the impact our heavily medicated world has on everything else, challenge yourself with this book. How will you make the difference?
My only gripe is the use of lower case for species names, but upper case for man-made things. This in my mind devalues the other creatures around us. This should not however put you off from this valuable contribution to the discussion. Most of the book puts the Eel front and centre. Part two drifts into ‘new nature writing’ where the person becomes a character, but in my view an unnecessary one in this case.
I read it on the beach at Sennen looking out to the Sargasso and have returned to a wreck of Guillemots and Razorbills in the North East. Whilst the oceans are huge they are filling up with our waste and hubris. Using the science to tell an important story in an accessible manner should be the way forward in engaging more people about our plight.