Wonderful Things

Room with a View

rocky stream
Pixabay | manseok
By Susan Hand Shetterly

My 5-year-old grandson caught an elver in the stream behind his house. He cupped it in his hands, and his whole being lit up with concern and wonder. Concern because he hoped he hadn’t hurt it (he hadn’t). Wonder at this live being and its strange, jet-black beauty.

I like to think we are all experiencing moments like this. Perhaps a hummingbird will set one off, or the long trill of a winter wren, or an alewife school moving upstream, or a newly arrived elver. I hope that when these lives touch ours during this time of fear and isolation, we’ll be inspired to change the way we share the Earth with them. We’ve been given a pause. We have time to notice that wild creatures love their lives as much as we do ours. 

The American eel connects the Gulf of Maine directly to the Sargasso Sea, which lies over a thousand miles from here, in the Atlantic Ocean east of Bermuda. It’s a vast archipelago of floating seaweed islands, a place of such abundance and attracting so many species of wildlife that some scientists call it the ocean’s rain forest. It’s there that mature eels spawn and, we assume, die, although no one has ever found either a dead or dying eel at the Sargasso. What have been found are tiny leaf-shaped larvae that drift in the seaweed and then are carried northward on the Gulf Stream. Some of them reach the Gulf of Maine, change into glass eels, and then into elvers that ascend our rivers and streams. Like the alewives, they link our coastal waters to our inland ponds and lakes, turning individual habitats into beads on a string. The elvers grow into yellow eels that can spend decades in fresh water. At some point — we don’t know the trigger — they turn silver-bellied and black-backed. Their eyes grow big. On chilly, wet autumnal nights, together and one by one, these silver eels start their journey to the sea. And they’re gone.

We’re the only state along the eastern seaboard that harvests elvers as if there were no tomorrow.

Not so long ago, people thought eels sprang from earthworms or out of the hairs of horses’ tails, or from chunks of mud that fell into the water. Today, we know better, but these fish still keep their secrets, still need the Sargasso Sea and our bays, streams, and ponds, and still make their long journeys.

I write this because the Sargasso’s seaweed is overharvested and polluted with plastics, and the warming of the water affects the trajectory of the Gulf Stream. I write this because we’re the only state along the eastern seaboard that harvests elvers as if there were no tomorrow. Nations are just beginning to work together to try to figure out how to save them. And nations, of course, are made up of communities, and communities are made up of individuals who care.

Maybe your heart doesn’t warm to the American eel. That’s fine. Many species need our advocacy. What about the grasshopper sparrow? Or the monarch butterfly? What about the right whale or the little brown bat or the upland plover? In these days of such stillness, chaos, and grief, we’ve got time to figure out what needs to heal and how we might help that happen.