I have three self-imposed rules in my reading journey:
- I read 60 books every year
- I finish every book
- I read any book people recommend to me.
While the first rule is based on a random number, the second two are designed to force me into starting and finishing books I never would have otherwise read. I believe that a life spent lying inside the comfortable little box of topics that interest my tiny mind will never allow me to experience big bangs of unrelated ideas.
A few days ago, I found myself reading an informative scientific book that had been recommended to me. A Swedish book entirely about eels. It made me laugh to see the very uninspiring title, The Book of Eels, accompanied by the Wall Street Journal’s note describing it as “captivating”.
As soon as I started the book, I could not put it down for a moment. For days, I couldn’t read anything else, talk about anything else, or Google anything other than eels. For nights, I dreamt of nothing but eels. The book frequently mentioned a town, Comacchio in Italy, where due to its peculiar geographical position at a point where fresh and marine water meets, an eel fishing and culinary tradition had developed. Comacchio is four hours by train from my home, and the questions not answered by the book were piling up in my head. So I told my 12-year-old son “Get ready, we are leaving for EEL weekend!”. (EL means THE in Spanish).
And here’s what we found out.
The eels we know as harmless little “snakes” found in all our rivers, or delicious fat-rich fish found in our restaurants, are actually magical and extraordinary travelers, and also a species at imminent risk of extinction.
Each eel takes on five different forms over the course of its life:
- Leptocephalus, or larvae: they are born in the Sargasso Sea, from where the Gulf Stream sweeps the Anguilla Anguilla species to European coasts, while the Anguilla Rostrata species (American eels), differentiated by having fewer vertebrae, somehow end up in America instead. Imagine the eels counting the vertebrae of potential partners to figure out who to breed with at the Sargasso Sea rave!
- Glass eels: once they’ve made their 3,200 km journey, the larvae do something incredible. Unlike you, who cannot move from your couch, and unlike saltwater fish that would explode upon entering fresh water, these Glass eels adapt their kidneys to function in fresh water, turn into transparent fish (Pokemon are pussies in comparison), and swim up the currents of European rivers.
- Elver: As they eat, glass eels grow into dark-coloured snake-like fishes.
- Yellow eel: later on, they take on the appearance of the eels we know, yellow/brown in colour. Once they find their favourite spot in the world, they just stay there eating and sleeping, until they are 30 years old (or even up to 50, or 80 if kept in captivity, holding back the following metamorphosis). Unpleasant scientists have tried to steal eels from their chosen nook, to which they have successfully managed to return, swimming thousands of kilometers without Google maps or advice from passers-by.
- Silver eel: When an eel decides to breed, it does so like a rock star. Having made up its mind, the eel abandons its home of many years and sets off for the sea. Unless some asshole fisherman takes advantage of this magical impulse and catches it at the start of its migration. Once at sea, and on its way to the Sargasso Sea rave, the eel makes its final metamorphosis, to become a silver eel. The silver eel develops its genital apparatus, closes its digestive system and uses all the fat stored over its lifetime as food for the long journey, without wasting time hunting or eating. Once it reaches its destination, the eel will reproduce and die. To date, no one has ever seen an eel reproduce or die. All that is known, is that there’s some kind of “black hole” where silver eels go to reproduce, and newly hatched larvae emerge from. The Sargasso Sea location was identified in a 20-year worldwide search by the Dane, Johannes Schmidt. Since genitals only develop in the last stage, until 1900 humans were driving themselves crazy trying to figure out how the eels reproduced. In the process, they cut up millions of eels, without ever finding reproductive organs. One of these failed scientists was Freud, who devoted years to this research in Trieste, only to abandon zoology because of this failure. Coincidentally, he then went on to found a strand of psychology based on hidden sexuality.
Big bang of unrelated ideas. This is what I realised during Eel Weekend:
- Human beings see a yellow eel, and believe that only the yellow eel exists. The invisible and complex are far from what our eyes and hearts can process, the patterns are simplified to make them understandable to our tiny brains. The eel is food. Those who want to sleep with a person of the same sex are strange. Entrepreneurs are models and heroes. God is dead. Environmentalists who stain Van Gogh's paintings hate art.
There are no animals who travel the world swimming without eating for years, nor invincible loves, exploitative and thieving entrepreneurs, miraculous and invisible orders, or environmentalists who want to open people’s eyes to the real priorities. During our weekend in Comacchio, we found no museum, documentary or film about eels that mentioned the fact that yellow eels must be released from farms in order to travel, metamorphose and reproduce. We also met several fishermen who were silver eel deniers, who convincingly claimed that eels breed in Europe in their ponds because such tiny larvae could never make it from the other side of the world. Humans see yellow eels and kill and dissect yellow eels to find their genitals. What if the answer is beyond.
- Humans only love what they can conquer and kill. Humans are like billions of foxes in Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Grapes. In this fable, after a failed attempt at jumping to reach some high-hanging grapes, the fox exclaims that the grapes aren’t even ripe yet, and decides they are therefore of no interest. The only times I had the privilege of living with people who were immersed in nature and interested in animals, I had to accept the fact that these people were immersed in the cruel cycle of life and killed animals with their own hands or weapons. I learnt all about nature and reindeer when I was in Greenland with the Inuit, who were slaughtering reindeers. As The Book of Eels claims, the only ones who are worried about the extinction of eels are the eel fishing communities in Sweden, Italy, Ireland and Spain. No human being gives a damn about something that must exist outside of his immediate interest in killing, controlling, eating, or possessing it. Columbus wouldn’t care about the new continent if he couldn’t conquer and shape it. I wouldn’t care about the person I love if he meekly abandoned himself to me. I wouldn’t care about my work if it didn’t help me create the world I’ve already designed in my head. I wouldn’t care so deeply about my son if he didn’t have my genes and wasn’t a spark of a possibility to shape someone in my image.
- That which has driven us as a species to prevail on all other species, will be the root of our destruction.
It is very difficult for us to accept the cognitive dissonance that the very human characteristics that have led our species to dominate the planet, and which have given us comfort and abundance, nullified dangers, provided infinite possibilities, caged ferocious animals, enabled long lives, pregnancy-free sex and free time, will drag us towards annihilation and total destruction. These characteristics are the beloved and glorified exploring of our curiosity and ambition to excel, prevail and impose our dreams on others. A few days ago, I had a collaborative focus session on Focusmate.com with an Israeli professor who was writing his doctoral thesis on how to help Nigerian immigrant children integrate into Israeli schools and excel. I could glimpse his big heart and goodwill as he explained to me that the main problem was the culture of origin, which privileges the collective and pushes children to waste time in baby gangs on the streets, instead of focusing on the Israeli ideal of study and individual excellence. After years of experiments, he discovered that with constant free homework help, children could begin to find satisfaction in their achievements and become ambitious, and play an active and excellent role in an individualistic society. Admiring his good intentions, I couldn’t help but wonder if our future really needs even more individualistic greedy, and ambitious people, or if instead we urgently need to hope and accept that future generations will be more like the Na’vi in the movie Avatar.
- Even human beings who understand the roots of evil cannot detach themselves from it.
The last point of this brutally honest article is the fact that during our Eel Weekend, we ate eel. We ate it in broth, grilled, and in oil. It was good. We ate it knowing that it came from a farm of unscrupulous people who call it farming but actually steal the larvae from the rivers and kill them before they can escape to reproduce. We ate it knowing that the delicious fat that made it so appetising was from reserves accumulated over a lifetime to make it possible to cross the entire Atlantic Ocean without ever eating. We ate it without needing it or being hungry for it. We ate it despite finding it an incredible and wonderful creature.
Whatever makes us humans makes us inhuman. Our love and ambition mirror the need to taste, conquer, possess, dominate, destroy and kill. Our current values and everything we currently are, cannot coexist with any future scenario respectful of other living creatures.
I am in no position to provide solutions, as I am constantly wandering the world, spying, trying to shape, trying to bend, trying to conquer, trying to make my dreams prevail, trying to rape the essence of people “for their best”. Or trying to build a world in line with my imagination, such as I’m doing with this article. As so many have done before me, such as the Communists, the Nazis, and the Islamic republic in Iran.
All I can do is continue to read very different books, hope for big bangs of ideas, and observe myself, my behaviour, my inner nature, my evil seed and its germination into a person who considers herself altruistic, open-minded and good.
As of today, there are eight billion of us. We have become eight billion times responsible for our evil seed. Let us open our eyes.
Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results. (Misattributed to Albert Einstein)
This is the great paradox, which has also become part of the eel question of our time: in order to understand the eel, we have to have an interest in it, we have to continue to hunt, kill and eat it. An eel is never allowed to simply be an eel. It’s never allowed to just be. Thus, it has also become a symbol of our complex relationship with all the other forms of life on this planet.
(The Book of Eels, Patrik Svensson)