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.
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.