Posted on February 14th, 2013
A storm has started outside.
The air is growing white as the breath of it picks up speed. The space heater by my feet churns in a loud hum. Two birds cut the sky through the window, here in this yolk-yellow aerie above Haywood Street. It is my job, for this year, to keep this gambrel-roofed house in one piece. Somewhere south and west, in a winter-dark river, is an eel weir. It is at least a century old. The wind is pushing billows past the glass, long plumes of cold. On a map of the current weather, I can see that my hill town and that other river sit roughly in the same deep purple band of snow. I wonder about the work that will face the weir’s steward when the days turn warm again. Re-stacking stone. Replacing what was lost to water, and wind. Work that paces beyond a single turn of the year—across seasons. Through bloodlines. That passes from fact into story, and back again.
The steward’s name is Ray Turner. The book where I found him was James Prosek’s—simply titled Eels. For weeks now its facts and denizens have been making their way into my conversations and thoughts, and friends have been patient with my growing case of fish-specific mention-itis. Eels can live to be one hundred years old. Eel writhes in a pan while it’s being cooked. Freshwater eels begin and end in the sea, but spend their lives elsewhere, in riparian exile, waiting. That last fact causes a close friend to say that she can see why I’ve been drawn to this animal–”you’re always in a state of waiting to be somewhere else”. But, I say, eels are patient. And I am not.
Yes, she points out, but you could both wear a shirt that reads ‘Eventually I Will Leave You For The Ocean’.
What I can’t seem to stop thinking about are the dualities of this fish. It can live in rivers and oceans, but at the last, needs the greater wildness of the sea to survive. It will circle, solitary as a stray punctuation mark through dark water, biding its time—and then, moved by forces we can only guess at, will travel across land (land!) to reach the shore. I picture an undulating, multi-feathered wave of black shapes through night grasses in France. A fish whose single syllable hiss is the beginning of my own middle name, Elin. Something resolutely other—a willful mystery in the face of scientific scrutiny.
“They’re kind of gross. We’re talking about eels, right? Slimy? Like snakes? They even sound creepy. Eeeeeeel.” Another friend, over drinks.
And there it is. The sharp edge of otherness. And the danger of names.
When I finished Prosek’s book, reading all the way through to the tail end of the acknowledgements, I noticed that he’d originally conceived of the work as a more culinary-focused adventure. Recipes for eel cookery across the globe. It had gone elsewhere, as writing projects will, but, now I was curious about that first idea. I’d recently finished reading an article by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker about the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands—a wilderness, as she puts it, “that was…constructed, Genesis-like, from the mud”. Part of an initial vanguard of ‘re-wilding’ experiments in remote corners of Europe, this space whose proposed intent was a recreation of a prehistoric landscape has been fraught with controversy—but, the article noted, has gained support from corners who are chiefly curious about the expanded dining options afforded by the organized rebirth of various ‘lost’ species. We most want to save, I wrote in a journal that night, what we want to eat. More duality—the effort of species rescue, for the purpose of killing and consuming the beast snatched from the brink of extinction, or hauled howling from the genetic vault via the back-breeding of its modern descendants. Could it, I scribbled, work for the eel?
Because, you see, the eel is in danger. When James agreed to talk with me about his book for this issue, I’d mostly thought to ask him about traveling and that initial impulse to collect eel recipes. But, my project, too, went its own way, and instead, among other things, we talked about extinction—and the danger of specific language for unspecific things.
The freshwater eel, he explained to me, needs a critical population mass in order to reproduce. As they work to return to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea, one theory is that there must be enough of them migrating to etch some kind of signature in the water, for the others to follow. A saline songline. Faced with man-made obstructions in the form of hydroelectric dams in rivers across the globe, whose turbines are as so many guillotines strung across the water, eels are, instead, ending elsewhere. They are extraordinarily long-lived, but, can’t wait forever. And when the call comes to return, for so many now, it means death miles inland, the journey unfinished. Unlike the Edenic experiments of the Oostvaardersplassen, it also won’t simply be a matter of genetic back-stepping until the extinct creature rises ghost-like from the molecular ashes. “It’s not like you can save just one breeding pair, “ James, says, “and bring them back. They’ll just be gone.”
Part of the reason for this is that so little is actually known about the reproductive cycle of the eel, right on down to the precise location of the spawning grounds. Adults have, as Prosek notes, finally been seen and captured close to where the smallest eel larvae have been taken—but so much of how they come to be there, how they mate, and why they travel so very far to do so remains a mystery. What isn’t, is that they are declining sharply, around the globe. And that we have no means of artificially rebuilding them, for lack of a better word, as of yet. Efforts have been, and are being made, to breed eels in captivity—stymied, at this stage in the game, by not being able to artificially recreate the precise mixture of marine particles that eel larvae feed on—a detritus called “marine snow”. While the breeding grounds remain an elusive, unfixed point, so does the nature of the food sources available there, at the exact time that they are needed.
This brought us into a discussion about James’ current project, a book about the nature of names, and naming. When I speculate about whether or not an eel would, to bastardize Shakespeare, perhaps smell sweeter if it had a different name, Prosek talks about the difficulties inherent in the human need to categorize nature in order to understand it. And how things like eels, that are, in some senses, neither here nor there—a fish that resembles a snake, who lives in rivers but returns to the sea, whose gender evolution, even, remains murky until a certain age—exist outside of a space that will make us comfortable with them. For him, and, for me, this is what makes them fascinating—in a world where so much essential mystery is daily being chipped away at, it feels all the more important to work to preserve those things that activate our collective wonder. “We always want specific language for things, in order to have a way to control nature, or to try to control it”, he remarks, “and control isn’t necessarily the point. It isn’t, ultimately, something we can control.”
As outdoorspeople and writers, we agree that we’re both conscious of the irony of our own need to name and record, with Prosek going so far as to call his writing more a compulsion than an expression, at times—and the frustration of attempting to translate the visceral into narrative. But also that it is in this duality of language that someone might be able to inspire an impulse to save a creature, where the science of names has not. When I ask him if, as both a painter and a writer, one art form feels more immediate than the other—a better way to translate the untranslatable, so to speak, that occurs in nature, Prosek doesn’t have a ready answer. Both, he thinks, are always chasing after the ghost of the original experience—but painting feels somewhat more personal. His own painting history intertwines with his fishing history so intimately because, he notes, (as he has here, as well) that we observe most closely that which we love, or, as hunters, that which sustains us. Referencing a passage in Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler, which was, quite famously now, the subject of Prosek’s senior thesis while at Yale, he says that he likes to think that there was a reason Jesus chose to make fishermen his apostles—they are keen observers of the daily shifting face of nature. They know what their streams and rivers look like, in all of their moods, every weather—when the fish rise, when the mayflies hatch, the thousand details of rock and water. When something, even something slight, changes, they see it. “You figure, if you’re going to be performing miracles, you’d want an audience that would recognize them as miracles in the first place.” In other words, God is daily scattering the bright crumbs of miracle before us. It is our job, in whatever way we can, to pay attention, as closely as we are able. And to say what we have seen—word or brush. Language can’t be, and in our shared opinion at least, shouldn’t be used as a means to control nature—that is futile, and leaves little breathing room for the miraculous. But it can be used, however humbly, as a critical sustaining mass—a bright signature against the dimming waters of our collective forgetting.
Prosek recounts the powerful experiences that he had in both New Zealand and on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei where, through story, the eel exists both as an animal and as a spiritual entity. His time in New Zealand, in particular, echoes that aforementioned notion that we most closely observe that which sustains us—on those far-flung islands, eel is both revered, and eaten. It is at once profane and sublime. Daily meal, and demon legend. Kept alive, he notes, both in our conversation and in his book, through the telling and retelling of stories, where words aren’t used to limit an understanding of a creature, only to expand it—to keep mystery alive, in the face of the mundane. Yes, this is the stuff of a weekend barbecue—but some part of it lives outside of cognitive regularity, and keeps us hungry for the unseen.
Some echo of this surfaces in my own life when, in a stray post on Facebook, (the great modern collective unconscious) I mention my growing appreciation for the unique mystery of the eel. My Aunt Rachel, who helped induct me into quahogging as chronicled here, writes to tell me that she has a story for me, about my grandpa catching an eel in Long Pond.
When I read Eels, and, while I’ve been thinking about this article, my grandfather has been much on my mind. In fact, it was a stray remark in an article that Prosek had written for Garden & Gun magazine that ultimately prompted me to email him, asking for an interview—he’d mentioned fishing on Cuttyhunk. An island that my grandpa had known well, and visited often. My grandpa was a fisherman—and, much like the apostles, and countless anglers before him, a keen and close observer, cataloging the mysteries, such as they were, in the waters off of Wareham, MA.
In college, during that first year away, he wrote me letters. The folded pages contained, in addition to his bold black script, small sketches of sea birds. Stray drawings of mussels. What the tide had done that day—the weather and its movements. Sunrise, and sunset. Sometimes, there’d also be a photograph—early dawn, over the pond. Or the sun, burning itself out in Buzzard’s Bay. Unhappy at a school that I would later leave, deep into an upstate New York winter, I’d take these missives with me to my job in the biology department, where I worked alone maintaining the research plants and animals. I fed large aquariums of fish in dimly lit, empty laboratories. Monitored the health of rare toads. Cleaned a walk-in cage containing hundreds of fluttering canaries. And left, as always, the greenhouse for last, where I’d perch on a half-broken stool in the balmy heat, strip off my winter layers, and read about the goings-on of far-off waters.
My outdoor mania, at that time, was for backpacking, not fishing. But my grandpa and I had always been kindred spirits in the way that we found our greatest peace in time alone, spent outdoors. He was a Pisces, and came from seafaring stock. From my conception on the shores of a pond in Miles Standish State Forest during a thunderstorm until now, my parents have always joked that I must be part fish. He was, and I still am, forever restless for water.
When I thought about what James had said, about eels needing a critical mass of themselves in order to survive, I thought also about the ways in which people persist or are scattered by gravity, by biochemistry, by time, and by losing that critical functional accumulation of all three. How I have inherited my grandpa’s pull towards the open sea and his resulting slightly unfixed quality, as though some part of him was never fully with you—but, haven’t, and cannot inherit, all that he knew about the waters that he fished near his home, now that I have come to fish them. That personal, intimate extinction is a small reflection of the greater—we too, need a critical mass in order to survive. Of breath. Of atoms. Of magnetic pulls. And unseen chemistries. To disregard the blank horror of any animal facing its own end is to be out of charity with yourself. No matter your number of limbs, or lack thereof. No matter your name, or the sound of its syllables.
So, when I call my aunt, and ask her to tell me the eel story, it is in part some small effort to add a thin, wavering tributary to the greater channel of eel lore. And when she recounts the surprise, the mystery, and the ‘bloody blue murder’ she screamed when my grandpa pulled an arm-fat eel from a placid summer pond, I hear other voices too, cataloging the ancient interplay between edible and ethereal. I bear witness to her recounting of my grandfather hacking the head off of a freshwater eel with a large knife against the side of the canoe, blood running down into the water, and the great body twisting against his arm. It invisibly stitches itself to the current of the printed stories that I have read, and the other voices that told them, on islands thousands of miles distant from that Massachusetts pond.
I can’t sit in the old red canoe and hear my grandfather tell me how he knows the hidden geography of that one small pond. That way is shut. James Prosek can’t make eels resemble puppies, or be any less ‘other’ than what they simply are. What he and I can do, in greater and smaller ways, is to tell stories. To let language be the critical number by which mystery multiplies, as faithfully as our abilities allow. We can chronicle the miraculous, as best we know how, and hope that others nearby will see the miracles too.
Joan Didion said that ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’. This is true when I carry my grandpa’s fishing rod and remembered words down to the water with me, and repeat them here, across the electronic ether. It is true when James writes, with haunting detail, about a man who believes it his life’s privilege to work at the slow, yearly rebuilding of an ancient weir. Let it also be true for a lean sentence of fish, fighting to make their way back to the sea—let them live. Let them persist. One word at a time.
(ed: James Prosek’s documentary, based on his book Eels, airs on the PBS program Nature on April 17th at 8pm.)