Posts tagged ‘Patrik Svensson’

August 2, 2022

Spring Tides by Fiona Gell

by Team Riverside
cover of Spring Tides book

Hardback, W&N, £16.99, out now

What is it like to be a marine scientist and conservationist in the time of the climate emergency and the increase in species becoming extinct?  How do you keep going? Spring Tides is a well written combination of natural history and memoir that helps answer this question. “My energy comes from looking down into clear water through glossy kelp, studded with blue-rayed limpets, striped with iridescent blue; from swimming on my back at night making glowing wings of phosphorescence; from diving down into the magnetic blue beyond the reef; from drifting at speed past a carnival of coral in the company of mirrored jacks; from learning from a laughing fisherwoman how to find clams with my toes in the soft sand between the seagrass on a remote Indian Ocean shore”.

Fiona Gell left her childhood home on the Isle of Man to travel the world working on marine conservation projects, before returning to do the same work where she grew up.  Spring Tides is a useful primer for lay readers on the impact of climate change on our seas and sealife.  Her love for marine environments is infectious, and makes you want to get out onto the beach or dive “under water to get out of the rain” (as Trevor Norton had it in his wonderful book about diving, rightly subtitled “a love affair with the sea”).  Spring Tides appealed to me in the same way that The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson did, combining nature writing and memoir.

I liked reading about a woman scientist doing cutting edge work around the world, and also her candid accounts of dealing with family life alongside her work in recent years.  Gell explains that engaging with conservation successfully is complex.  I found her account of securing a Marine Nature Reserve compelling.  It is a story of doing the hard work of listening, advocating, and compromising.  She shows how a previous unsuccessful attempt in the Calf of Man area, which had failed to engage successfully with the concerns of local people who earnt their livings from the sea, had left scars: “It had become an example of how the most well-intentioned conservation plans can go awry and had left rifts between people.  I wanted to use what I’d learnt about marine protected areas to make protecting the sea possible again”.

Gell also gives a glimpse of Manx culture, and is clear about the impact of the sea on everyday life.  I am very envious of anyone who gets to go to the beach almost every day, as she does.  And as Olaf Falafel’s endearing new book Blobfish reminds us, we can help clean it up while we are there.

Review by Bethan

June 23, 2021

The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson

by Team Riverside
The Gospel of the Eels

Paperback, Picador, £9.99, out now

I was speaking a couple of years ago with someone who was helping with a citizen science project which was monitoring eels in London rivers. They would empty a trap set for the eels, measure them, and release them.  They were told by the research lead that they did not need to take a photo of the eels each time.  “There are lots of things we don’t know about eels, but what they look like isn’t one of them”.

The Gospel of the Eels goes after these mysterious animals, explaining that there are large parts of the eels’ lives that remain unknown to science, including exactly where and how they breed.  What is clearer is that European eels are in danger of becoming extinct, and that urgently solving some of their puzzles might help protect them even though something might be lost with their mystery.  Svensson quotes Rachel Carson: “And as they passed through the surf and out to the sea, so they also passed from human sight and almost from human knowledge”.

Svensson is interesting on eels’ impact on modern life. Sigmund Freud spent time early in his career studying eels, and Svensson makes a good case for this influencing his later theories (‘Sigmund Freud and the eels of Trieste’ is possibly one of my favourite chapter titles ever).  He spots eels in literature, including work by Graham Swift and E.T.A. Hoffman.

Among the natural history and current science, Svensson recalls eel fishing with his father as a child.  Some of the fishing detail is frankly revolting to a non-fishing person, but the experiences become a place to explore his relationship with his father. Svensson notes that life for working class families like his in Sweden changed hugely during the last half of the twentieth century: “… it had become possible for a road paver and day care worker mum, my parents, to live a life that was different in every way from the lives previous generations of the working class had known”.  He finds that attending to eels leads him to pay better mind: this reminded me of some of the arguments made by Julia Bell in Radical Attention (https://peninsulapress.co.uk/product/radical-attention).

The premise of The Gospel of the Eels sounds strange, but it is not strained or annoying.  It’s well-translated popular science with memoir, and a pleasure to read.  Why gospel though?  When science lacks answers, faith can fill the gap.  Perhaps if we can fix things for the eels, we can start to fix things for ourselves. 

Review by Bethan