Nightfishing / Michael Malay

 
 

The River Severn gleams under the moon, heavy with water, polished by light. Mist rolls from bank to bank, and the ground is firm and crisp, still hard from that year’s winter. In the fields beyond the river, stray cattle pass like ghosts, and frost begins to form on the grass. It is very dark and very quiet. 

The man next to me kneels down, tears a handful of grass, and tosses it into the river. For a moment the grass spins, turns like a compass needle, and then points southeast, towards the sea. The water carries it away. ‘In ten minutes,’ he says, ‘the tide will turn and the grass will float back. That’s when we put our nets in.’ By the banks, where the willows gather, the water is dark. But at the river’s centre, where the trees do not reach, the moon hammers down its brightness, the water is silver and pure, and there is a surfeit of glimmering light. ‘They’re coming,’ he suddenly says, whether to me or to the river I’m not sure. ‘I can feel it.’

We are there for eels. In particular, for the European Eel, a creature known to science as Anguila anguila,but which anglers know by other names: fausen, gloat, gorb, milwel, sea-adder, snig. The man’s name is Andy and he has been fishing this river most his life. The Sustainable Eel Group, which restocks rivers with the help of local anglers, put us in touch earlier that month. Andy’s first email was to the point: ‘Come up when the moon is full.’

And he is right: the eels are coming. Migrants of the high seas, they will have been travelling for years now, drifting along the highway of the Gulf Stream, across the freeway of the North Atlantic Drift, picking their way along ancient routes and water-paths, driven all the while by the promise of freshwater, safety, home. When they arrive, they will be thin and fragile, soft and tender, barely two years old. Yet they will already be veterans of the ocean, with three thousand miles under their belt. Their journey from the Sargasso Sea, a warm region of water in the west Atlantic, to the rivers and streams of Europe, is one of nature’s headier miracles. That one eel arrives is astonishing. That millions of eels arrive each year defies belief. 

I travelled from Bristol earlier that afternoon, taking a train to Gloucester before boarding a bus to Tirley, a small village eight miles north. The bus trundled down narrow roads of oak and lime, past fields of cowslip and coltsfoot, and everywhere you looked—in fields, ditches, alongside hedges—cow-parsley was in flower, foaming white against the tender greens of early spring. After finding my accommodation for that night, a farmhouse that had been converted into a bed & breakfast, I went straight to sleep. It was 4 pm. ‘Get lots of rest,’ Andy had texted earlier that day. ‘You’re going to need it.’ When I open my eyes again, it is not to morning light but to failing light, and not to the familiar trees of my garden, birch and hawthorn, but to a paddock full of cows. House martins chatter under the eaves. The sun hangs low in the sky. 

I turn on the radio. The news that day—the whole month, in fact—has been dominated by a political scandal. The Home Secretary has just resigned. Ministers have been called in for questioning. The Prime Minister’s track record is being scrutinized. It emerges that a systematic policy of detention and deportation has been in place, that citizens have been denied re-entry to their own country, that historic landing cards have been destroyed, jobs lost, that all over Britain, men and women who were born here, or who emigrated here as children, have had their futures put in doubt, have been told they are not British. Almost exclusively, those affected by these policies are people of colour, particularly members of the Windrush Generation and their children. Again and again, a quote is discussed on the radio—an excerpt from an interview given in 2012. ‘The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.’ The words of Theresa May, then Home Secretary, now Prime Minster.  

I turn off the radio, go outside. Walk down quiet lanes, past old stone cottages, across empty fields, find a dirt track that leads into a little forest. It is good to stand there in the trees, in the growing dark, watching the last light fall over the valley. For some time I am entranced by a blackbird, by its discordant, cascading song, and then at one point the blackbird is no longer visible, not because it has flown away, I can still hear it singing on the branch, but because night has fallen, and the forest’s canopy is too dense to admit the moon’s light. I go back to the farmhouse and prepare a small meal. Around 9 pm, I receive another text from Andy. ‘Be ready for 10:30. And wear lots of warm clothes.’ 

 *

We are standing on the banks, and Andy gives a low whistle, pointing to the river. A clump of grass floats by, followed by another. ‘There,’ he says, ‘the tide has turned. The elvers will start running now.’ We walk towards the car, where we have built a fire above the bank, and he begins to unfasten the net tied to the roof of his jeep. The net is huge—half a meter in width, a meter in length—and for a moment, as he lifts it, Andy looks incongruous, as though he were holding an oversize butterfly net. Walking back to the river, he hammers two stakes into the ground, and then plunges the net into the water, scattering moonlight like phosphorescence. The net sits snugly on the bank, held in place by the two stakes. ‘They’re coming,’ he says. It’s his second week of elvering and he hasn’t seen a single elver all spring, but somehow he thinks tonight will be different, somehow he feels the eels will come. 

It is. They do. One hour past midnight, with the spring tide heaving up the river, in a field deep in rural Gloucestershire, a net is lifted, expectant eyes peer down, and something precious is pulled up from the dark: an elver, frail, thin and milky-white, and luminous under our lamps. (Wherever there are rivers in Europe, this same scene is being played out, although the accents and garbs are different, on the Po, the Mondego, the Nervión, on the Rhine, the Meuse, the Loire, on the Elbe, the Oder, the Vistula…) Andy transfers the creature into a bucket, the bucket is passed from hand to hand, and two faces peer over the rim. 

‘Go on,’ Andy says, ‘hold it.’ And before I can say anything, he holds the bucket over my hands and tips it. The elver slides down very quickly—an eternity seems to pass—and then it is in my hands. I look down, bring it up to my eyes. There it is: an elver, 3000 miles after setting off, come to find a home in the mud-holes of the Severn – here,in my cupped palm. It is impossibly light, unimaginably smooth and light, tender in its lightness, of a milky white transparency, and I suddenly laugh, for the sheer joy of it, the joy of being near it. ‘Those are its eyes,’ Andy says, pointing over my shoulder. At the tip of its head I can see two dots: two pin pricks of black. ‘And that?’ I ask, pointing to a small mark below the eyes. There, caught in the transparency of the elver’s body—like an ink-spill in a bowl of water—is a dash of red. ‘Its heart,’ he says. It floats there, wondrously clear and vital, and I fancy I can see it palpitating, expanding and contracting under the gleam of our torch. 

What was this strange being? How had we come to meet? I slip it back into the bucket and watch as it darts around, lifting its head in bewildered inquiry. I stare at its eyes, unfathomable in their utter blackness, and at that ink-drop below its eyes, the organ that is its heart. The river is moving quickly now, urgent in its fullness. Mist continues to hurry from bank to bank, spiriting across the water. And at the river’s centre, along its length, where the moonlight falls, the water is sequined with light, sheeted with silver, gleaming especially where the river’s surface is busy, where the raised edge of a ripple offers a tiny lip, a little rim, against which the moonlight scatters and dances. 

A few minutes later, we hear muffled footsteps downriver, and a man materializes out of the dark. Andy’s friend has been fishing a few minutes away from us, and he has come to share the warmth of the fire. They compare catches—Dave has caught twelve elvers to Andy’s one—and they both seem excited, although in a gruff, understated way. The first elvers have started to run, and they are hoping that hundreds or even thousands more will follow in their wake. Fishing five miles downriver, Dave’s son has already caught a kilogram, and there are reports of similar catches elsewhere, at Maisemore, towards the mouth of the Severn, and in the River Parret in Somerset. But things are changing, they say, and talk soon turns to the decline of fishing, to how much bigger the catches were in the 90s, 80s, 70s. The rivers are different now. There are more sluice gates, more dams, more tidal flaps, more concrete and more steel, what chance do the elvers have against concrete Andy asks, gesturing towards the river, and later that night, when the fishing is done, they show me a tidal flap along the river bank, an impenetrable fortress standing between the river and a dry field, the elvers’ former wetlands. The tidal flap, Dave tells me, is operated by remote control.

I return to the bucket and peer in. The elver is tracing hesitant circles around the bucket’s base, exploring the limits of its world. Its head is long and intelligent, its body graceful and lithe, its form beautiful and clear. It is half the width of a pencil and about five centimeters long. And it is almost completely transparent, apart from a fine black line running through its length, which I later learn is the beginning of pigmentation. It also seemed very curious. It seemed to know something very definite. But it was also afraid, bewildered. Its bucket did not make sense. It did not know our world. It wanted out.

Among the banks, the wind shakes the willows, shakes the willows and then stops. And looking at the river, I suddenly feel very small in its presence, but immersed in it too, enveloped rather than disregarded, like a drop of water. I feel—I don’t know how else to put it—that the river knew us, was looking back. And I began to think of all the creatures hidden in its chambers; not only eels, but also salmon and dace, barbel and pike, chub and roach. We could have fathomed the river with a weighted line, or touched its base with a pole, but it would have remained bottomless to us in other ways, simultaneously measurable and without end.

Later that morning, we clamber over a tidal barrier with all the elvers we caught that night. Walk down to a deep ditch that runs for miles into the country, where the water is clear and cold. We crouch down, tip the bucket. The elvers flutter out slowly, like flakes of snow.  

*

The mist, the silence, the moon—after that trip to Tirley, these experiences often come back unbidden, in the middle of a street, in the garden at home. Months later, it is as though I can still feel the weight of the elver in my hand, so light, so tender. For months, too, the world felt roomier, more spacious, as though untold realms had been excavated—from right under my feet. Suddenly, a river in Gloucestershire was connected to the Atlantic; suddenly, there was a direct line between Tirley and the Sargasso, or from the Cambrian Mountains, where the Severn rises in Wales, to a watery region near the Bermuda Triangle. 

At the same time, I continued to be troubled by one aspect of my trip to Tirley, by a coincidence I couldn’t shake off. It was the news on the radio in the hours before I met Andy and Dave, the scandal of the Windrush generation—a scandal which, as the weeks passed, ramified into a political crisis for the government, as more revelations, more insidious policies, came to light. I don’t want to press the analogy—the life-worlds are incommensurable, for a start; the histories and ontologies too distinct—but there seemed to be a parallel, at least to my mind, between the ‘hostile environment’ of the government’s immigration policy, and the hostile environment we have built for eels. A recent survey by a group called Amber has counted more than one million human-made obstructions in rivers and streams all across Britain and continental Europe. Upon reaching these shores, then, thousands of miles after beginning their journeys, eels face endless barriers obstructing their progress upstream: tidal flaps, weirs, dams, sluice gates, hydropower stations. In the past 50 years, eel populations in Europe have collapsed by 95%. Their former abundance, the extraordinary numbers with which they once arrived in the spring, is already passing into legend. 

Politically, materially, ecologically, Britain resembles a fortress at times. Hostilities abound. Lodged in the economic order we call capitalism are deep divisions based on class and race: divisions reified by, and reified in, the country’s immigration policies, differences in educational opportunities, and gross inequalities in wealth. The widening of these divisions have gone hand in hand with the development of elite, gated communities around the country— in London, Manchester and Leeds, in Surrey, Yorkshire and Durham—and with a marked rise in what is called ‘hostile architecture’, design features that deliberately make public spaces less comfortable, less congenial. Wires covering concrete barriers, to discourage sitting, benches tilted at sharp angles, to discourage sleeping, as well as spiked ventilation shafts and metal-studded pavements, to ward off the homeless. Meantime, Amber continues to add more obstructions to the list, while the habitats of countless creatures are disappearing, if not already gone. Britain is losing its birds, bats and toads, its voles, pine martens and butterflies, its beetles, moths and bees. What all this amounts to, it seems, is a failure of our capacity to recognize the lives of others, to make room for them—in short, a failure of, and sometimes even an embargo on, hospitality. In 2016, a convoy of activists travelling to France were stopped at Dover and refused entry to the port. They were carrying food, blankets and other supplies for the refugees in Calais. When food is diverted from the hungry, you know a crisis is at hand—a crisis of politics, of fellow feeling, of spiritual values. 

But so much manages to cross borders too: food and money, tents and tools, letters of solidarity, hope. In Bristol, where I live, herbalists gather plants in the spring and the summer, herbs that they turn into medicine in the autumn and later send to asylum seekers and refugees—tinctures and teas, ointments and oils. Now, on the way to work, whenever I see dandelion and yarrow in the verges, or burdock and comfrey in the fields, I recall that nature’s bounty is vast, as is the realm of human kindness, and often surprising. Where some see weeds, others see gifts, and what some regard as empty spaces, others know as places of medicine. 

At night, one also knows that the eels are slipping through tidal fences, crawling through sluice gates, finding their way across weirs. They are persistent, filled with a form of love: the desire to keep existing in this world. For they don’t know any world that’s better, despite all the obstacles in their way here. Their ingenuity is also a kind of hopefulness, a hope that the world’s roominess, its hospitality, might persist.

The hopefulness is contagious, and it makes our world more spacious too. For eels, among the other things they do, make us reconsider geography. Pulling at the edges of our maps, they stretch them into new shapes, reveal borders for what they are, a kind of conceptual putty. The creature is known as the ‘European Eel’, but in fact it is not European at all. It can be found in the rivers of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Its range is wide: it likes a broad margin to its life. And why not? After travelling 3,000 miles from the Sargasso, how could it only be content with western Europe, when it might as well go the extra thousand miles to the Nile, or to the rivers of Latvia and Estonia? When I realise this, the different lines running in my mind, from the Plynlimonto the Sargasso, or from the Elbe to the Atlantic, become woven in with other lines, with strands from Algeria and Finland, with threads pulled from Norway and Greece, and soon it becomes hard to look at the atlas in the same way. Eels fold the map of the world along different creases, make the planet wider and stranger than the one we knew. But they also knit our world together, bring the Sebaouin line with the Shannon, the Loukkos together with the Loire. 

*

One evening, after the work day is done, I walk down to the river. The summer has ended, the nights are getting shorter, and when I set off, the light is already failing, already streaked with umber. I point my nose towards the water, walk down busy roads, past a Victorian cemetery, down steep hills, and it isn’t until I reach sight of the river that I realize something curious: that I am not so much directing myself as being guided or pulled. I begin to understand, without articulating it, that I have come for the eels, to witness what I cannot see, their underwater migration towards the Sargasso, where they breed and then die. The air is cold by the river, and the day has gone, but the ground retains a little of the sun’s heat, and I watch as night comes over the Avon. The river is heavy with water now, water that seems to come on with great strength and without end, and for a moment it seems as though the river were being fed from an imperishable source, from a fountain deep within the earth, and I know that the eels are running now, at this very moment, in Bristol, Lille, Gdańsk.

Michael Malay teaches English literature at the University of Bristol.