Body of Dark: on writing ‘The European Eel’ | Steve Ely

Somewhere in Tethys’ salty darkness,
in spurts of milt and billowing roe, eels
are birthing their posterity, a spore-storm of eggs
in uncountable centillions, each buoyed
on its micron of oil.

Introduction

The European Eel is a book-length poem focused on the lifecycle, natural history and conservation status of the European eel (Anguilla anguilla). In this essay, I will discuss the origin and development of the poem, its place in the context of contemporary writing about nature, and the research hypotheses that emerged to shape its distinctive form, content and presentation. In writing this piece I’m giving an account of my own work and process. This brings with it the triple risks of pomposity, self-aggrandisement and giving positive reviews to your own work, so I’ll apologise for those things in advance.

Frickley Beck (on the West Yorkshire / South Yorkshire border),
May 2019. Photograph by Steve Ely.

The European eel is a critically endangered fish that until the 1980s made up to 50% of the piscine biomass in some Western European river systems. In England, eels were staples of the national diet
until well into the 20th century and were so common (and valuable) that many estates and individuals paid their rents and taxes in eels. Over the last fifty years, European eels have experienced a catastrophic decline, with recruitment of young eels to some catchments reduced by 99%. The species was added to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II in 2007, and to Annex B of the EU’s Wildlife Trade Regulations in 2009, both listings having the effect of banning international trade in the species. In 2013, the European eel was red-listed as a ‘critically endangered’ species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The reasons for the eel’s decline are still not fully understood, but include a range of anthropogenic factors, including pollution; the impact of the absorption of chemicals, drug metabolytes and heavy metals on the fish’s physiology and reproductive capacity; commercial over-exploitation; drainage of marsh and fen; intensive management of waterways; fragmentation of river catchments by weirs, dams and hydro-electric plants; debilitation by introduced parasites; and the impact of global warming on ocean currents and spawning conditions.

I have a longstanding relationship with the European eel. As an inept schoolboy angler in the late 1970s it was the only fish I ever caught, even when my mates were hauling in pike, perch, barbel, chub, etc. In 1977 I was bitten by an eel, which creates a sort of Peter Parker/Spiderman relationship between me and the eel—perhaps it made me a were-eel—I do go missing in the darkmoon. And of course, my eely surname is often given slippery etymologies deriving from Old English—‘eel-island’ or ‘eel place’ or ‘eel-like’ or ‘eel-catcher’. Bearing all this in mind all this autobiographical eeliness, it is perhaps surprising that it took me so long to get around to writing about eels.

Context

The European Eel developed out of the praxis I developed in the writing of my pamphlet Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah: The Song of the Willow Tit (which, like The European Eel, is superbly illustrated by P.R. Ruby). In 2017 I became aware that the Willow tit, a species I was familiar with in my youth, had declined by 94% in less than 50 years and as a result had been red-listed by the IUCN. Motivated to find out more, I re-acquainted myself with the species as a birder in the field, contacted conservation professionals in the RSPB, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Back from the Brink, and conducted what was effectively a literature review of work focused on the species. I also attended Willow tit-focused meetings and conferences organised by Back from the Brink and developed my own ‘guerrilla’ conservation and habitat management work. In the process I became something of a lay specialist (and a rough and ready citizen scientist) in the species. Alongside this engagement with nature and conservation, poems began to emerge, quite unexpectedly. The poems ultimately resulted in Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah: The Song of the Willow Tit, which was published by Wild West Press in May 2018. The pamphlet was launched at YWT Carlton Marsh in South Yorkshire, a relative stronghold for the species.

Frickley Beck, May 2019. Photograph by Steve Ely.

Nature Writing Fit for the Anthropocene?

In the writing of Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah, it dawned on me that I had stumbled on a method that had the potential to provide the basis for a kind of writing about nature that had the potential to be ecologically and ethically credible in the context of the Anthropocene and the age of the Sixth Extinction. The last decade has seen a significant increase in creative writing about the natural world in a range of genres, including creative non-fiction, collections of themed essays, autobiographically derived work, fiction and poetry. Much of this output has been marketed under the banner of the ‘New Nature Writing’, a term coined by Jason Cowley in a 2008 edition of the literary magazine Granta that highlighted the rise to prominence of authors including Mark Cocker, Kathleen Jamie and Robert Macfarlane. However, a review of the wider literature marketed as (new) nature writing in recent years indicates that the engagement with the natural world that characterises some titles is relatively superficial, with some authors seeming to use nature simply as a sympathetic backdrop to the main themes and content of the writing—journeys of self-discovery, trajectories into family issues, overcoming trauma and similar. Although many of these books are very well-written and moving pieces of literature—without doubt, good books—the extent to which they can be considered ‘nature writing’ per se is open to question, given that their primary focus is generally on the central human protagonist rather than the natural object and, crucially, that the level of knowledge and experience of the natural world demonstrated is sometimes limited or incidental. There is also a sense in which some writing branded as nature writing is pastoral writing in the traditional, escapist sense—in which jaded, troubled or sick central characters resort to nature to be healed or edified—contemporary versions of the Idylls of Theocritus. This protagonistic mode often lacks the ethically driven commitment to conservation and knowledge of the natural object that is surely required of writing about nature in the crisis of the Anthropocene. Bearing those considerations in mind, the experience of writing Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah helped me develop three research hypotheses during the planning of The European Eel that consciously informed the writing:

  1. Grounding nature writing in scientific research, ecological commitment and direct, sustained experience of the natural object will provide the basis for writing about nature that will have scientific as well as literary credibility and will have the potential to contribute in an informed way to debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene.
  2. Writing that emerges from an engagement with scientific research, ecological commitment and direct, sustained experience of the natural object will show the influence of those factors in the writing itself, in the foregrounding of the natural object, the nature of the language used, the forms and structures adopted and in an expression that seeks to create its effects as much by the artful deployment of empirically and experientially derived knowledge as by rhetorical means.
  3. It is possible for writing emerging from the processes implied in the previous two hypotheses to nevertheless demonstrate a sophisticated and reflexive artistic subjectivity that constitutes affective, non-didactic art.

Researching The European Eel

I resolved to intensively study European eels and once more become a kind of ‘lay specialist’, so that I might be an evangelist for the species and perhaps even make a modest contribution to raising awareness of its plight. Accordingly, before beginning the actual writing of the poem I undertook the following research:

  • I conducted an extensive review of the relevant scientific literature—over 30 books/monographs, over 200 journal articles and dozens of technical webpages, not merely focusing on the eel, but its environments and contexts—river systems, ocean currents, ocean floor bathymetry, weather systems, angling, the eel in culture and society, the eel in culinary contexts, and even astronomy as it impinges on the eel.
  • I met and corresponded with several leading academics working in the field of fisheries science, biology and conservation, including Dr Matthew Gollock of the Zoological Society of London, Professor Paul Kemp of the University of Southampton, and Dr Bram Houben of Nederlands Ark. I also attended several conferences, including one sponsored by the Environment Agency, the UK organisation charged with maintaining the ecological health of our waterways.
  • I took part in scientific/conservation work related to the European eel, surveying eels in the river Roding in London with Norwegian biologist Hette Hultmann and consulting with Pete Wall of the YWT, who introduced over 100,000 elvers (young eels) to the RSPB reserve at Old Moor, near Barnsley.
  • I conducted amateur field research along the rivers Severn and Ouse and on several small streams of the Don catchment, successfully testing a hypothesis I had developed that eels were able to thrive in very small streams. Bram Houben very kindly gave me a tour of some of the sites along the Dutch Rhine where he is leading a rewilding project, including the reintroduction of beaver, otter, and sturgeon.
  • I trapped (and released!) several eels, and I kept one of them in an aquarium for three months, observing its behaviour daily, before returning it to the place where I had caught it.

This work began in the autumn of 2018. I began writing The European Eel in the autumn of 2019. I completed the poem in March 2020.

She perceives only light and darkness now,
the spatial acuity of predatory vision
a redundant inefficiency: six thousand
black and fasting miles to the spawning grounds
of the southern Sargasso, over the edge of the Nares Abyssal,
south-east of the Bermuda Ridge.

Frickley Beck, May 2019. Photograph by Steve Ely.

The Structure of The European Eel

The poem imagines the life-story of a single, representative European eel—the one I caught in the Frickley beck on 12 May, 2019, kept in an aquarium for observation and released back into the beck on 30 August, 2019. With stunning banality, I named her ‘little eel’. Her life story as narrated in the poem is representative of every European eel that survives to reproduce. All European eels are spawned in the Sargasso Sea (a huge area of the North Atlantic Ocean broadly south/east of Bermuda). After two days the eggs hatch into microscopic larvae or leptocephali, which drift on the currents of the North Atlantic Gyre for two and a half years, eventually growing to around 7cm in length, the attainment of this size coinciding with the time they reach the European continental shelf. At this point they metamorphose into glass eels—tiny transparent eels—and ascend into estuaries and rivers, where they develop pigment and become elvers. Most eels are born sexually indeterminate, but as the elvers grow larger and become so-called yellow eels, they take on definitive sex. Male yellow eels tend to stay in estuaries and the lower reaches of rivers and generally grow to no more than 50cm in length—usually closer to 40cm. Female yellow eels travel further up the river systems and can grow to 120cm or more, although 45–100cm is more typical. A yellow eel is essentially a feeding machine. They live for years in their waters, growing until they are physiologically ready to transform again, this time into silver eels. The morphological changes eels undergo in ‘silvering’ are designed to adapt them for oceanic travel, and in the autumn of the year of silvering, they begin their journey back to Sargasso to breed, a journey that probably takes around six months—possibly longer. Male yellow eels tend to silver after around 8 years in freshwater. Females silver after about 15 years. However, some yellow eels achieve great age without silvering—captive ones, generally females, have lived for over 80 years.

Frickley Beck, May 2019. Photograph by Steve Ely.

With great good luck, ‘little eel’ began silvering in my aquarium. This enabled me to create an indicative timeline of her life. Assuming she was an ‘average’ female, she would have entered the Humber estuary fifteen years previously, in the spring of 2004, and thus would have been spawned in the Sargasso in the spring of 2001. After I returned her to the beck, in August 2019, ‘little eel’ would have continued her transformation, and probably would have begun her migration (‘descent’) in the heavy rains of late September, travelling along the Frickley beck to the Ea beck; from there into the river Don; from there into the Dutch River; from the Dutch River into the river Ouse at Goole; from there into the Humber estuary at Blacktoft; from the Humber into the North Sea beyond Hull; from the North Sea to the Channel, and from there out into the open Atlantic to the Azores, from where she would complete her journey to Sargasso by means of the North Atlantic Gyre. Arrival in the spawning grounds would be sometime between April and June 2020. There she would complete her transformation, mate, spawn and die. (All eels die immediately after breeding and spawning.) The reconstructed lifecycle, timescale and journeying of ‘little eel’ provides the tripartite structure of the poem:

  1. Oceanic hatching and journey to Frickley beck
  2. Capture, three months in my aquarium and return to the beck
  3. Migration to Sargasso, spawning and death

The content of the poem—the lifecycle of the European eel, embodied in the imagined life of a representative eel—effectively decided the form of the piece. It is a monological epic, with ‘little eel’ as the hero. This represents a departure from my usual practice, as virtually all my longer poems are dialogical and polyphonic. The form emerged spontaneously as a direct consequence of the decision to focus on the natural history of the natural object. But I wasn’t just interested in maintaining a close focus on the eel. I was also keen to discharge what I saw as an ethical and pedagogical responsibility to showcase the wider geographical, topographical, oceanographical, ecological (and so on) context of the eel’s incredible story—one of the greatest stories in nature, truly awesome, awe-inspiring and humbling—and to inventory the huge range of threats eels face, which include: fragmentation of river systems by weirs, dams and sluices; dredging of rivers; drainage of wetlands; debilitation by introduced parasitic nematodes; various forms of pollution, including cocaine metabolytes in sewage, which makes eels hyperactive before killing them, and oestrogen, also from sewage, which turns a disproportionate number of sexually indeterminate eels female, impacting on the species’ reproductive ability; over-exploitation of elvers for food (now illegal, but there is a significant underground trade, with elvers being worth more than their weight in gold), particularly for South-East Asian markets; disruption of ocean currents caused by global warming. The poem narrates the eel’s lifecycle, epic migration and natural historical context in a paradoxical panoramic microdetail—because only in doing so can justice be done to—and for—this astonishing fish. Anything less diminishes.

Conclusion

It is interesting to test the poem that emerged from my research and planning against the three research hypotheses I developed. Again, I’m evaluating my own work, so the reader should conduct a hermeneutic of suspicion.

My first research hypothesis asserted that grounding the writing of the poem in scientific research, ecological commitment, and direct, sustained experience of the natural object would provide the basis for writing about nature that would have scientific as well as literary credibility, and might therefore contribute in an informed way to debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene. I think the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The engagement with research that informed the piece is clear, as is the ecological commitment. The natural object is foregrounded, protagonism is limited to the structurally necessary middle section, and the piece is, I hope, not exploitative or parasitic. The poem has the potential to educate and inform the poetry reading public and be an adjunct to scientific research.

The second hypothesis asserted that writing emerging from an engagement with scientific research, ecological commitment and direct, sustained experience of the natural object will show the influence of those factors in the foregrounding of the natural object, the nature of the language used, the forms and structures adopted and in an expression that seeks to create its effects as much by the artful deployment of empirically, experimentally and experientially derived knowledge as by rhetorical means. Again, I feel that the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The poem is replete with scientific and technical language to the degree that a distinctive register is achieved, and the engagement with research that underpins it echoes through its structure and language. The natural subject is foregrounded, in a largely non-anthropomorphic manner. The poem’s epic monology, a deviation from my usual dialogic, polyphonic practice when composing longer poems, emerges directly from the ethos and praxis implied in this hypothesis.

The third hypothesis asserted that it is possible for writing that is shaped by the first two hypotheses to nevertheless demonstrate a sophisticated and reflexive artistic subjectivity that constitutes affective, but non-didactic art. I believe that the principles embodied in the first two hypotheses led directly to the vindication of the third hypothesis, in the specific and unexpected sense that the decision to imagine in detail the lifecycle of the European eel paradoxically highlighted the elisions, lacunae and uncertainties in our knowledge of the species, and created in me an overwhelming sense of its enigma and otherness. This produced a speculative expression that infuses a religious or spiritual aspect into what began as a strictly scientific project and broadens the focus from the European eel to the cosmic context of life on Earth. I’ll conclude with some reflections on this unexpected development.

Reflections

Artistic expression is not like academic expression. The artist is never in full, conscious control of the upwelling of utterance—even if the work is planned, researched and mapped-out according to self-imposed didactic and formal constraints, as was The European Eel. The artist cannot be merely the executive automaton of their blueprints and intentions—which in any case, are in a state of continual development as the unconscious and unexpected repeatedly intervene to enrich, warp and thwart the project. There has to be space for spontaneity, for the transformative imagination. Luckily for me, because so much of the lifecycle and ecological context of the European eel is unknown or merely hypothesised—that is, as much defined by absence as by presence—it leaves lots of space in which the imagination can roam. As I have said earlier, the subject matter seemed to demand epic monology and the identification of a representative European eel as a hero. Those were technical and structural choices. But in imagining the lifecycle and journeying of the eel so fully, in so much detail, in the context of its presenting absences, the piece slowly transfigured into a form of occult conjuration—out of its ontological tohuwabohu a questing omniscience conjured the eel—and there it is, in its absolute fullness—as it’s never been, and almost certainly isn’t. My intention to render a scientific account of the life-cycle and journeying of the European eel paradoxically led to the development of a supplanting shadow narrative born out of science’s inability to provide a complete or satisfactory account of the life of the eel—or for that matter the purpose and nature of life itself, of the nature of the Universe, or satisfactory answers to what theologians call ‘ultimate questions’—questions that deal with meaning, values and purpose—which remain essentially dark. They can’t tell me what I want to know. Thus, the internal pressures of the poem’s dynamic force it to become speculative, generative, religious—where rationality and empirical evidence falls short, irrationality and imagination step in. As the poem progresses, the eel is increasingly presented as uncanny—an alien, supernatural being, literally from another dimension. Aleister Crowley’s technique for Astral Projection began with him visualising an image of himself, which he called his ‘Body of Light’, into which he magically projected his consciousness. Using this vehicle, he could then travel through space and time. In The European Eel I have created a ‘Body of Dark’ for the eel and projected the species into it. As the poem travels through spacetime, the method and expression become more or less overtly gnostic—uncovering what is hidden, revealing secrets and asserting vision and meaning.

 

The European Eel is published by Longbarrow Press as an 80-page hardback, with illustrations by award-winning artist P.R. Ruby. You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below. Click here for further details about the book. You can also read an extract from The European Eel here.

The European Eel
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Steve Ely’s poetry publications include Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack, 2013), Englaland (Smokestack, 2015), Incendium Amoris (Smokestack, 2017), Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God (The High Window Press, 2018), Jubilate Messi (Shearsman, 2018), Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah (Wild West Press, 2018) and Lectio Violant (Shearsman, 2021). He has also published a novel, Ratmen (Blackheath Books, 2012), and a biographical work, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield.



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