#7 Thinking with Eels 

October 26th, 2020

In this episode, researcher & writer Ben GJ Thomas explores the role of eels in shaping lives across both shores of the Atlantic. The story takes us on a journey from a monastery in medieval England, to the fight to uphold Indigenous fishing practices across so-called Canada today. Through conversations with writers and philosophers, we explore why eels matter, asking what it means to think alongside this endangered creature.

Image:Hinkley Point badge, Sophie Alda

Whilst walking along a river, near the outskirts of the city of Bristol, I came across a faded noticeboard; likely put up by the council during a more utopian time of public education. There were big italic letters, and a drawing of an eel with what can only be described as a grin. The board explained how eels start life in the Sargasso Sea, just north of Bermuda; a space both mythic and real in equal measure. They are carried along the gulf stream, up the coast of North America then out across the Atlantic. As such, eels populate river systems on both sides of the ocean. Here in the River Severn, young eels arrive on a high tide in late spring. They choose to call this river home for many decades before returning across the ocean once more, to reproduce and ultimately die.

Whilst eels are often imagined as slippery, since hearing this story I’ve found the creature to be nothing but sticky. I can’t shake this tale of eel criss-crossing the Atlantic, out of sight below the surface yet on occasion close enough to be felt. And yet, eels are at risk of extinction. Since the 1970’s, their numbers have been plummeting due to loss of habitat, blocked waterways, environmental pollution and overfishing. In addition as the seas warm the Gulf Stream itself, relied upon by eels for their migration, is beginning to weaken.

Image: Matthew Paris’s c. 1250 map of Britain

Standing on the banks of the river Severn, I feel sad.  And yet this sadness is complicated by the very human acts of violence that set sail from these shores. The Severn will forever hold the memory of the transatlantic slave trade in its waters. In addition, the river also marks the site from which John Cabot set sail in 1497 Landing in Mi’kma’ki the territory of the Mi’kmaq people, on the east coast of what is commonly known today as Canada. Cabot’s Journey lay down a marker that led to the colonisation of indigenous lands along with the violent destruction of indigenous ways of living and being. Whilst the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade is kept alive in Bristol today, this other history remains largely unspoken.

Storytelling can be powerful, though. Can we tell stories that unravel these complex threads of violence, speaking and listening with care; being mindful to never assimilate, remaining with the trouble wherever it leads us. And can eels help us in this endeavour? These creatures have played a crucial role in shaping lives across both shores of the Atlantic. How might thinking with eels enable us to recognise the past, as well as the ongoing violence of the present, whilst taking tentative steps towards relationships otherwise? 


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Contributors & Credits

Thanks so much to our incredible contributors: 

Thom van Dooren is a field philosopher and storyteller. He is an Associate Professor at the universities of Sydney & Oslo. His current research focuses on the philosophical, ethical, cultural, and political issues that arise in the context of species extinctions and human entanglements with threatened species and places. Recent books include: Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (2014), The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds (2019), and the co-edited collection Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations (2017), all published by Columbia University Press. https://thomvandooren.org/about/ 

John Wyatt Greenlee is a medieval historian. He recently completed his doctoral studies at Cornell University, focusing on the cultural history of eels in England from the tenth to the seventeenth century. He can be found tweeting about eels @greenleejw https://www.jwgreenlee.net/ 

Michael Malay is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Bristol. His current project, ‘Faceless Extinctions’, explores the lives of ignored or uncared for species, and tries to think through the implications of what would be lost – both for the environment and for culture – if certain species were to disappear. Published work includes the monograph, The Figure of the Animal in Modern and Contemporary Poetry (2018), published by Palgrave Mamillan. https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/michael-malay

Rebecca Thomas is a poet from Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is l’nu of the Mi’kmaq nation. She divides her time between writing, activism and policy-work on Settler-Colonial–Indigenous relationships. From 2016-2018 she was poet laureate of Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has just released her first poetry collection, I Place You into the Fire, with Nimbus publishing. https://nimbus.ca/authors/bio/rebecca-thomas

Further Reading

We would like to encourage all listeners to learn the Mi’kmaq language. There are many useful resources available, including: 


https://kinu.ca/app/lnuisuti/ (a great phone app)

If you would like to connect with other eel enthusiasts, please visit: https://eeltown.org/

To keep up to date with Indigenous news in so-called Canada, please follow: https://www.aptnnews.ca/



Ben G J Thomas – www.bengjthomas.com
Jack Friswell – www.jackfriswell.co.uk

Music, Edit and Mix

Rowan Bishop  – www.rowanbishop.co.uk/

About Ben GJ Thomas

Ben GJ Thomas is a researcher & educator. He has produced collaborative projects for organisations including Amnesty International, the British Refugee Council & Save the Children. From 2014-19 he was Curator of Learning at Arnolfini, Bristol. He is currently an associate lecturer in visual culture at the University of the West of England (UWE).