Illustration: James Prosek

Waiting for the Elvers

LAST SPRING, when COVID descended and my sons’ school shut down, we went to the river. The river I am speaking of is one of Maine’s tidal rivers. Twice a day, the brackish water flows behind our house through hemlocks, oaks, and spartina grass to meet a freshwater stream that cascades over slippery rocks bordered by black alders.

At first it was just instinctive: we needed to get outside before doing any math or spelling. Our boys needed to start their days listening to the burble of water and smelling the dank must of mud.

I’m not sure who first saw the wriggly, almost see-through, three-inch bodies of the elvers, or baby eels. But I think it was my energetic five-year-old because I remember his face. When he told me, he had run all the way back to our house through the woods and up our steep bank. His eyes were shining and he was breathless from exertion and excitement. His words tumbled one over the other, and his hands played out the drama of what he had found.

What started then as a thrilling curiosity became, soon, a passion for our whole family.

Morning after morning, we watched the elvers make their way from the briny water of the river, up granite rocks, and into the higher pools of the gushing stream. As the whole world stopped, we could look more closely. Nothing was calling us back to the house, or, for that matter, away from the house. It was just us and the river and the herons and the eels. Now, finally, we could pay attention.

 

 

This became one of the most amazing migration stories we could ever witness or tell. These tiny, vulnerable creatures had begun life as willow leaf–shaped larvae, or leptocephali, far away, it is believed, in the Sargasso Sea, an area of free-floating sargassum, a kind of seaweed, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. From there, they had floated for fifteen months on the warm, swift currents of the Gulf Stream to the mouth of our tidal river, where they had turned into transparent glass eels. They then migrated to small, rocky pools in the fresh water of our stream, where they turned into the slightly darker elvers we first witnessed. Soon they became yellow-brown eels, and, eventually, much larger silver eels. They might live in our stream for ten or even fifty years until their internal clocks tell them to swim back to the Sargasso Sea to procreate and die.

One night, we camped by the river so that we could go out into the darkness and observe the elvers with our headlamps. During the day, we measured the river and did math to try to estimate how long it would take one elver to travel 500 feet; we tried to figure how much distance one leptocephalus larva could possibly cover floating on the Gulf Steam currents from the Sargasso Sea to our river.

 

Despite these painful conversations, I am holding on to hope. Because two young boys, in the quiet time of a global pandemic, fell in love with slithery eels.

 

As spring gave way to summer, my sons were diligent about not putting on sunscreen or any kind of bug dope before going to the stream to splash about. We had learned that chemicals in the water will kill these delicate creatures.

My eleven-year-old, a patient and quiet soul, found that he could sit in a pool to cool off, his back against a rock, water flowing all around him, as dark elvers wriggled up the damp face of the rock to the next pool; they were so close they almost touched his arm. After each elver passed, he would take his hand and gently drip some more water onto the rock to make it a bit damper for the next.

When other masked families came, my sons taught their children about elvers. They designed a T-shirt to help raise awareness for these small, endangered, and overfished creatures, and they asked me to contact Maine Audubon for help.

At night, I read aloud the sections about “Anguilla” from Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind and the more recent Book of Eels by Patrik Svensson.

When fall arrived, my sons were delighted to see a female silver eel making her way back down the stream and into the saline water. They imagined her starting the long journey to the Sargasso Sea under moonlight, and they hoped she would make it safely.

A year later, we are all still home. It is April, and a cold wind spits rain and snow onto our daffodils, but the stream has finally thawed. Every morning we make a pilgrimage to its banks and lean down to peer into the water. We are hoping to see new babies making their way up the rocks, into the pools, and disappearing into the dark, watery caves. So far, only one has arrived.

We take the car out and scan the river for nets. We discuss the “cold blob” in the Gulf Stream, ocean acidification, warming waters, pesticides, microplastics, a diminishing eel population worldwide, and man’s great desire to understand the eel—often at the cost of the eel. We talk about what more our family can do to raise awareness.

Despite these painful conversations, I am holding on to hope. Because two young boys, in the quiet time of a global pandemic, fell in love with slithery eels.

And by watching them fall in love, what I know now, at this crucial moment for our planet, is that, even in the face of hardship—or maybe because of hardship—people want to care deeply about something. And once they do, they will work like hell to save it.

 

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Caitlin Shetterly is the author of three books: Fault Lines (2001), Made for You and Me (2011), and Modified (2016), which won the Maine Literary Award for Best Nonfiction of 2017, and was named one of “The Best Books of 2016” by Publisher’s Weekly. Caitlin is the curator for the annual Evening of Maine Authors series, which raises funds for Camp Susan Curtis, a camp in East, Stoneham for Maine kids facing economic hardship. When she is not pandemic homeschooling her two sons, working in the garden, or running through the woods, she is at work on a novel set in her home state of Maine. More information at www.caitlinshetterly.com

Caitlin Shetterly is the author of three books: Fault Lines (2001), Made for You and Me (2011), and Modified (2016), which won the Maine Literary Award for Best Nonfiction of 2017, and was named one of “The Best Books of 2016” by Publisher’s Weekly. Caitlin is the curator for the annual Evening of Maine Authors series, which raises funds for Camp Susan Curtis, a camp in East, Stoneham for Maine kids facing economic hardship. When she is not pandemic homeschooling her two sons, working in the garden, or running through the woods, she is at work on a novel set in her home state of Maine. More information at www.caitlinshetterly.com.

Comments

  1. I love this essay. What joyousness you chose during the pandemic! I, too, loved the quiet, the freedom of not having to be anyplace but where I was, which was right where I was supposed to be.

    There was much good in the pandemic, too, like an orchestra playing to a full auditorium of plants, wild mountain goats strolling through towns. Books to catch up on, exploring and learning, making art, riding my bike day after day on sunny, car-free streets. It was beautifully quiet.

    We all make life such a big deal, when it’s just life. Just life happening, all around us. There is no “normal” to go back to, because there never was a normal. There was only life. And little kids. And eels.

  2. Thank you for publishing this marvelous essay of elvish hope. After reading the essay in the New Yorker about Patrik Svensson’s “The Book of Eels,” I bought that book. Hiking the hills, searching for birdsong to translate to poetry, I’ve been blessed to find peace alongside the pandemic losses.

  3. Your essay highlights the joys of quiet observation and paying attention to one small creature in the world. From those acts of looking and being with these vulnerable elvers all the rest flows. Your boys and readers learn many different scientific and environmental aspects of the elvers’ lives and their excitement is contagious. Thank you for all the beautiful moments you share of this discovery of your sons.

  4. What a beautiful wonderful story. Enjoyed it. As a child I loved being out in nature, picking flowers, picking berries, making forts. Always felt like “home” in the woods and fields around where I lived.

  5. This essay made me wonder what I don’t see …because I don’t look and because I don’t even think to look. There is so much life, all around, waiting to be truly seen…if only we take the time to really look.

  6. My two young boys are now professors teaching others . . . and now I teach their children, my grandchildren. }:- a.m. (anonemoose monk, ecotheologist)

  7. I am 76 and a retired American teacher in Berlin. I’m from Minneapolis and lived just down the street from Cup Foods. The death of George Floyd has shaped this year. I also taught for five years in Brooklyn Center. The tragedy in these two familiar neighborhoods has been overwhelming.

    In addition, the husband of my best friend, a former French teacher in Brooklyn Center, has been dying of pancreatic cancer.

    I live in an 1895 building in a very eclectic and busy street in Schöneberg. About a month ago I heard the song of a mourning dove, but up close. I ran to my French doors to see if it was in the tree below. No sign of a bird. The next day I opened the doors and the dried up aster plant from last year had the stems broken off and laying in a row. Unusual… The next day, warm and sunny, I decided to clear away the dead plants. I opened the door to a huge rush of wings. At my feet, in a terra cotta planter, was a large round nest, and in the middle was one large white egg. The doves had come to stay.

    I felt like I was experiencing a mystical visitation. With a little research I learned that mourning doves take up residence near people who are experiencing a trauma or death. Both seemed to be true. I’ve learned all about their nesting habits and raising their young and monogamy. They make their nests together and take turns sitting on the eggs. I have only a partial view of the nest, but the female and I have eye contact. They trade places at night. The male is significantly bigger and has a bright orange beak.

    My friend’s husband died in February. I have mourned with her. They are both 68. Finally, his ashes were to be interred yesterday, April 30th. When I got up, I heard the mourning of the doves for the first time since they put down their nest. The female was sitting on the upper railing, looking into my living room. She had never done anything so daring. She allowed me to inch up to her, within 18”. We looked at each other. She eventually flew away, and looked down at the nest from a building across the street. The male was busy on the nest, and finally I realized that the eggs had hatched. I could see him making the motions to feed the chicks. The parents move in amazing synchronicity, as partners and sharing responsibilities for their young. Later I heard more of their sad song.

    In this year of mourning and death of cancer and the pandemic, I am the privileged host of this new life one door away. The eggs hatched the day my friend’s ashes were buried. It’s a constant renewal of life. Like the boys with the eels, I protect my bird family. They use the same nest for up to six broods. This year, I’m grateful and delighted to have birds, no flowers.

  8. Thank you Caitlin. A joy to read and much to think about. Every species needs an advocate; looks like your family stands with and behind the eels and elvers. Keep on keeping on with blessings and gratitude.
    R. Block, MA, MFA

  9. Just goes to show that when we engage in Life with curiosity, we can’t help but follow the paths discovered into mathematics, biology, ecology, art, compassion, caring, and responsible action. Thank you for sharing your experience, a wonderful example of a covid silver lining.

  10. WHEN I WAS 12 TO 14 YEARS OLD I BELIEVED THAT ALL DIFERENT TYPES OF EELS SWAM FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD TO REPRODUCE —THANK YOU FOR THE UPDATE —MARK BRAVERMAN

  11. Caitlin,
    What a wonderful essay. We are so impressed with your devotion to home schooling during this challenging time and your children are lucky and will have special memories to last a life time. During my teaching years, I always looked for ways to bring the outdoor world into the classroom and some of my former colleagues and I were able to do that with nature walks and fieldtrips. Not so easy in todays classrooms. It is great to be on the committee for Author’s Night in support of Camp Susan Curtis with you and we appreciate your valiant effort in finding a variety of Authors to support our cause. You are quite the busy lady and manage to find time in so many directions, from parenting to writing to keeping up with your many contacts.
    With Admiration and Appreciation,
    Carol and Hal Taylor

  12. Beautiful. Uncovering hope amid a pandemic. Rediscovering what it means to love and care for something other than ourselves: a very necessary lesson. Being still beside the water. Combing the waterways for life, always underfoot.

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