I’m committed (for the next wee while anyway) to re-posting older posts with fresh introductions, usually as one thing relates to the other or which sparks some memory. In this case The Book of Eels is the latest among books recently read about peculiar critters and it comes to me as a recommendation by friends who said if I like books on peculiar critters I would like this one.
They weren’t entirely wrong. I did like it. Though until the very end I couldn’t understand the reason for the book’s structure (alternating chapters of eel history, facts, and lore, and memoir of the author’s relationship with his eel fishing dad). It’s the ending that pulls it all together quite sweetly.
In a nutshell, Svensson writes 235 pages about what we don’t know about eels. And it’s honestly never dull because you are gobsmacked with HOW MUCH NO ONE KNOWS about eels. (And not for a lack of trying as many bright lights from Aristotle to Rachel Carson and beyond have been trying to figure them out forever.)
Here’s what we do know, sort of. There’s a pretty strong idea they’re born in the Sargasso Sea and then, while still tiny glassy things, no bigger than a willow leaf, they make their way to various parts of the planet’s rivers, oceans, lakes, to hang out for a life time, twenty, twenty-five years if they fancy it, before heading back to the Sargasso to breed, immediately after which they die. Conjecture points to them staying alive only as long as they don’t propagate. And aren’t caught by eel fishers.
That’s almost all anyone knows and they’re not even sure that much is right. This critter is FULL of mystery that goes back millions of years. How and where, exactly, they live (deep deep water) and how they propagate (there’s some thinking they may be hermaphrodites because an eel coupling has never — in millions of years — been witnessed and there’s no proof it even happens. No one can find their reproductive organs).
“When dad talked about the Sargasso Sea, it sounded like a magical fairy-tale world… Every time we caught an eel, I looked into its eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of what it had seen. None of them ever met my gaze.”
They have the ability to resurrect after being killed (and other extraordinary feats that defy explanation).
Also, the eels are in decline in a way that may represent the most recent universal mass extinction, of which there have been only five others where huge percentages of life forms disappeared (the last one being eons ago). Some reckon we are now in the sixth mass extinction, and at the rate we’re going we stand to lose 50% of current life forms within the next 100 years, a ridiculously high rate and entirely attributed to man-made causes (past mass extinctions were due to natural causes and spanned millions of years).
There is a short section on sea cows that I loved and how and why they went extinct and the dodo as well and how the eel may be next replacing the vernacular of dead as a dodo with dead as an eel.
Apparently eels were the reason Freud turned to psychoanalysis… before that he’d been into biology and got hooked on eels until the mystery of them drove him bonkers.
My computer will not currently let me upload any new photos, which is a shame as the cover is worth a look.
I’ll leave you also with the two other peculiar critter-book Not a Reviews on the off chance your critter whistle has been whetted.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
If you like the sound of eels, you will love moles and snails. Honest.
I’ll also leave you also with the final paragraphs of The Book of Eels, which is not a spoiler in any way but merely a satisfying point in the overall journey.
“I know it was an eel because I saw it. It slowly slithered up out of the shadows and came toward me. It was large and a pale shade of grey, with black button eyes, and it looked at me as if to make sure I could see it. I let go of the line and saw the hook come out just as the eel reached the surface, then it turned and slid back into the hidden depths.
“For a while, I just sat there by the water’s edge. Everything was quiet and the lake completely still; the sun sent a white sheen spreading across the water and everything beneath the surface was hidden, as though behind a mirror. What lay hidden underneath was a secret, but now it was my secret.”