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The Eel

February 23, 2012

It occurred to me after I wrote the Prologue that, as far as I can remember, I never have actually killed an animal bigger than my fist. Never even boiled the life out of a lobster. Whether or not this disqualifies me as a reputable blogger–  I will let you be the judge of that.

You might expect that I would at least have had some fishing experiences to safely and untraumatically bring me past the mark. I did go fishing a few times as a boy, but I never caught anything. Except once.

This was in the Great Dismal Swamp, there on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. It was the day beefore my tenth birthday. My father was talking a college zoology class that year that required students to find animals in the wild; class camping trip to the swamp was an opportunity to do that. I tagged along.

We were camping here, the site you see at the bottom of the page, the Lake Drummond Reservation. At some point I decided to try fishing in the water to the left in the picture; the Feeder Ditch, it looks like it is called. And for the first and last time in my life I actually hooked something. I reeled it in. It was an eel, maybe two feet long.

My memory of the moment is not entirely distinct. But I imagine I must have felt, and seemed, less than competent to deal with this eel at the end of my line. So some of the college kids came over to help me out. I remember one guy with his foot on the writhing eel, and another pouring beer on it. The eel did not survive their treatment. I doubt anybody there was prepared to actually cook the eel, so it should have been freed from the hook and tossed back. But these guys probably did not have much more eel competence than I did and — though I don’t think it occurred to me at the time — given the evidence of the beer it is possible they were less than sober. The eel died, went uneaten, and did not even serve an educational purpose: fish were not part of the curriculum.

This was a great shame, because that eel was a remarkable creature. It had been hatched way out in the Atlantic, in the Sargasso Sea, a dismal swamp of the ocean. It had then traveled all the way to the coast of America, made the leap from saltwater to fresh, and wended its way up the waterways to the heart of the swamp, were it found its food. Had it lived it would have made its way all the way back, back to the Atlantic, back to the Sargasso Sea, to spawn and die. Migrating eels are so dedicated in their mission that they have been known to crawl up on to dry land, and slither some distance on it, in order to reach the next body of water on their journey. How they find their way remains a mystery. Eels have always been a source of puzzlement. Aristotle pondered the question of their life cycle, one that scientists would not start to make progress on until the nineteenth century and still have not finished with. Sigmund Freud wrote his first research paper on the male sex organ of the eel and his failure, despite endless hours spent at the dissecting bench, to actually locate it. These are remarkable fish. To kill one gratuitously is surely a sin.

I did not kill the eel. But I caught it, its blood is on my hands (and eel blood is actually toxic.) But maybe this blog post can be my restitution. Because I have, in a way, resurrected the eel. The matter it was made up of has dispersed far and wide, into the air and the waters and the earth; into other living things. Whatever was its unfathomable eel-mind ceased on that day, at least to my way of thinking. But something of it, the power of its being, its existential facticity, a remaining resonance of its I AM, has been carried through into these words. Through the miracles of human memory, language and the internet, that individual eel has maintained an articulate presence in the world. It never made it back to the Sargasso Sea, but in a journey even more astonishing it has, in some ghostly remnant form, made its way through great distances of space and time to lodge itself in your own brain, dear reader. That singular creature has now been linked directly to you, by a long but direct, endlessly complex, chain of mediation. And who knows where it will go from there?

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One Comment
  1. Rick Easton permalink

    Eels are incredibly delicious. This is part of the tragedy.

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