Category Archives: Books

Save the Eels – New Book by Trout Illustrator, James Prosek

Growing up on a lake in Maine, my brother and I liked to lean over the end of the dock, shine a flashlight into the water on summer nights and lure the eels. They’d swim over to the beam, poke their heads out of the water and kiss the flashlight. I used to feel them slip passed my legs when I swam at night. They felt slippery because eels cover their bodies with a layer of mucous. But over the years, I’ve encountered fewer eels in the lake. Their population has decreased. In lakes and streams and rivers all over the world, eels are disappearing.

In the 1880s, the New York Times claimed that the eels in the St. Lawrence River were abundant; the population could never be diminished. Freshwater eels are the only fish that spends its adult life in freshwater and then returns to oceans—namely the dark Sargasso Sea, to spawn and then die. Juvenile (elver) eels travel up streams and tributaries of the Mississippi River and migrate into other freshwaters—lakes, wetlands, ponds—where they live until they reach maturity. For some eels, this can take many years, even 100 years. Once they reach reproductive maturity, they migrate back down the streams and rivers to the ocean, back to the Sargasso Sea, to spawn. They don’t come back. This is because eels go into their silver stage of development and their whole system degenerates. Their reproduction cycle has a “will self-destruct” button after they spawn. Unfortunately, nowadays eels are increasingly threatened by destruction of habitat caused by coastal development and construction of dams as well as overfishing. In the last 20 years, the population has been diminished by possibly as much as 99%. (FWS)

FWS released a status review of the American eel in 2007 which showed that while the eel population has decreased in some areas, the overall world population was not endangered. The eel was not added to the Endangered Species list. “Overfishing and hydropower turbines continue to impact eels in some regions, such as Lake Ontario and Chesapeake Bay, although these factors do not fully explain the reduced number of eels migrating up the Saint Lawrence Seaway and into Lake Ontario,” explained FWS biologist Heather Bell on the 2007 report.
Act+Protection+for+American+Eel+Not+Needed For more information on the American eel and the FWS research on considering it for protection, go to: FWS mapped a model of eel habitat in 2001:

Meanwhile, one man is calling for eel conservation. Check out this article by James Prosek, on Yale’s Environment 360 blog: “A Steady, Steep Decline for the Lowly, Uncharismatic Eel”

Prosek’s new book is titled, Eels – An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish. According to a New York Times review, Eels is more than a “fish book.” It is an “impassioned defense of nature itself, rescued from the tired rhetoric of 1970s-style environmentalism by good, honest shoe-leather reporting.” Prosek takes the reader to eel haunts around the world: a river in the Catskills of New York; the traditional Maori eeling grounds of New Zealand; and an odd little volcanic island… Prosek previously won a Peabody Award in 2003 for his documentary about traveling through England in the footsteps of Izaak Walton, the 17th-century author of The Compleat Angler. Prosek’s watercolor paintings of fish first appeared in his book, Trout: an Illustrated History

In the U.S., most people have a general dislike for eels. But in other parts of the world, eels are treated with respect, having a place in ancient myths and sacred beliefs, for example, in New Zealand. Scotland just published its first eel conservation management plan in 2010. passed new laws that assign fishing quotas, lowering the allowable number of eels caught starting in 2010. Scientists in England are also calling attention to the problem of eels vanishing from the Thames River.

Also check out a related article in the Orion Magazine:

Related video:

Related link: New York Department of Environmental Conservation led an eel conservation project this year (2010):

Additionally, check out the photos of “tame eels” eating crackers in this album:

Living with Less and an Island Love Story

Lately there have been a lot of stories about the “new” minimalist movement. American homes are getting smaller. Couples are downsizing and getting rid of 80% of their stuff and adopting a minimalist lifestyle
 The Small Home Movement has replaced the desire for “McMansions” and come at a time when many people can’t afford a big home. Jay Shafer founded his Tumbleweed Tiny House Company on the notion that people really only need 89 square feet to accommodate a two-person household. By downsizing this dramatically, he eliminated his debt and now lives more simply. His house designs range in plans from 65-835 square feet, a lot smaller than the average American home. He’s not alone. Others are promoting the same idea. Tiny House Blog Not So Big House

The trendy minimalist movement reminds me of the back-to-landers of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. City dwellers, driven by a desire to lead a better, simpler life, migrated to rural areas, including islands off the coast of Maine. But this wasn’t a new thing in the 1960s. It’s been a recurring phenomenon over the centuries, according to the poet Gary Snyder. Homesteading is another name for it. Urban problems such as the energy crisis, water pollution, lack of environmental protection for the natural landscape—these were the issues that prompted the “back-to-landers” of the 1960s and ‘70s to leave the city in search of a pure lifestyle and to work the land. Often this required fetching water from a stream or pond, or digging a well, and growing food.

Helen and Scott Nearing are two of the most recognized “back-to-landers.” They lived on a rural farm in Vermont until 1952, when they settled their “Forest Farm” in Maine. The couple authored a number of books on what they called, “the good life.” The Good Life Center in Harborside, Maine carries on their mission.

My favorite love story played out on a beautiful Maine island called Placentia. Arthur and Nan Kellam, an aviation engineer (who worked in Wisconsin and his wife, moved from California in 1949 and settled on the 500 acre island. They built a house in a little clearing and left love notes for one another every time they separated for the day—to explore different parts of their beloved island. Placentia Island has a number of ephemeral streams, seeps and forested wetlands, mainly Spruce fir and sphagnum moss, with wild chanterelle mushrooms and cherry trees.

Art built a great bandstand overlooking the sea, for his wife, a romantic spot. He also had another little building he called his “retreat,” which had ingenious Murphy-style furniture, when folded out one way, became a table; when adjusted, became a bookshelf or storage. The Kellams had two wells, one near the house and one near the bandstand.  They didn’t have running water, electricity or any convenience that the mainlanders enjoyed. They grew vegetables in their garden. They rowed their dory to the nearby Great Gott Island for supplies like kerosene.  Sometimes friends, including the Rockefellers, brought fresh milk and oranges, but the Kellams sustained their private life together on very little from the outside world. Fog encircled the island on most days, preventing casual visits from neighboring islanders.

This past spring author Peter Blanchard III published a book about the Kellams entitled,We Were an Island partly based on Nan’s writings and unfinished book that she started with her husband. She described in her journal that they had searched for a place, an island that would fulfill their “dream of peace.”

I visited the house in 1999, just a few years before Nan passed away. Inside the house, it is easy to picture how everything had its place; they each had their spot for sitting, a single desk, stacks of TIME magazine (so they kept up on current events!) It inspired the poem, “If I Were an Island,” which was published on the New Maine Times.  The Nature Conservancy manages the uninhabited Placentia Island. The only way to visit the island is to sign up to volunteer to work in one of TNC’s nature preserves—with Placentia Island, a nesting site for bald eagles, being on the list for September 2010:

Eat Pray Love: What He Doesn’t Know Might Eat Him

Last week there was a praying mantis in the garden. The gardener thought, “well, this could be good or bad, depending on what she eats.” The praying mantis will eat the bad bugs but might eat the good bugs, too. Some species of praying mantids are at home in gardens, but others are found in forested wetlands, meadows, fields and vegetated areas that have mild winters.

Out of thousands of species of praying mantids, only some are the famous praying mantis(Carolina mantid) found all over the world. The praying mantis eats nesting birds, insects, soft-shelled turtles, frogs, snakes, mice. A praying mantis is extremely well-camouflaged to look like leaves, rocks, twigs or whatever environment it inhabits. Its hunting tactic of blending in is only the beginning. A head that rotates 180°, compound eyes, spiked legs, daggers for hooves and lightning-fast reflexes make the praying mantis a perfect predator. She jumps. She flies. She pounces like a cat on unsuspecting prey, piercing and pinning her victim, then devouring the creature even while it’s still alive, and sometimes, during copulation with her mate.

There is a common misconception that a female praying mantis (Carolina mantid) will always eat the head of her mate during or shortly after mating. This really only happens if she is ravenous and there is no other nearby food source, such as, another insect, a mouse, a humming bird. It is especially common when the mating mantids are observed in captivity but less common in the wild.  Maybe it was a female praying mantis who started the post-copulation decapitation rumor, or simply a misunderstanding. The phenomenon is widely referenced in pop culture; there’s even a British heavy metal band called, Praying Mantis.

Beware:  the videos linked below are graphic.

Nature’s Perfect Predators:
Attacking a hummingbird:
Mating in the wild, eating male’s head:
Devouring a mouse:

Because they are such good predators, praying mantis are often used to control unwanted pests in gardens and Conservation commissions and other groups also mention the use of the praying mantis for the same purpose.

It is also not to be confused with the marine crustacean, the peacock mantis shrimp, aka the “thumb-splitter” or “prawn killer,” which is neither peacocok nor praying mantis nor shrimp but gets its name because it resembles all three:

The Birds Attack! Remembering Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds

My favorite writer, Daphne du Maurier, wrote the creepy novelette, “The Birds,” (1952) which Hitchcock made into one of his more famous films in 1963. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the story was an analogy of the terror that overtook the U.S. and European countries. The story presupposes the question, “what happens when birds—normally the symbol of peace—suddenly start attacking people?” While the story focuses on one farmer’s family, it’s a powerful metaphor for the tension and claustrophobia that people felt during bomb raids.

Now suppose we are living in one of du Maurier’s stories—and replace the Cold War with the underlying tension seeping out of diverse impacts from climate change, such as sea level rise and its effects on marshland in the Chesapeake Bay area
. The birds are at it again, attacking people…in wetlands. At a picnic in coastal Maine this past spring, some ballsy seagulls swooped down on our group and stole our veggie burgers right off the hot grill and out of one person’s hands. My friend, Josie, and I were once attacked by a mating pair of loons one summer while we were swimming. I took a loon in the armpit. Josie got beaked from the side. Loons aren’t the symbol of tranquility in my family; we call, “Loon torpedo!” when we see the famed black & white bird cruise into our swimming cove. People love loons. But loons don’t love people.

Meanwhile media reports have flitted in over the wires in several countries, U.S.A. included, suggesting an increase in bird-human encounters. However, bird attacks on people are so rare in numbers that often, it doesn’t make the news, and no one’s counting.

Mad mockingbirds! Crazy crows! Wrathful woodpeckers! Hawks in a huff! Black terns have been known to attack people who get too close, no matter the season. Red-winged blackbirds defend their nests aggressively when people walk into their habitat. Male red-winged blackbirds spend their mornings in February and March defending their marsh and they can get increasingly aggressive through the breeding season (June). Chicago was under redwing blackbird attack in 2008:,8599,1817833,00.html  As a means of defense, birds use scare tactics. Their aim is not to peck out someone’s eyes (as happened in du Maurier’s tale of terror!) but to scare, bluff and chase intruders away.  Gangs of grackles attacked pedestrians in Houston, leading law enforcement to close an entire street in 2005, a scene that was compared to the Hitchcock film.×3680438

What is causing birds to dive-bomb like B-52s? Experts have proposed a likely theory: Suburban sprawl has spread to woodsy and wetland areas with trees interspersed with human dwellings and community centers. Then again, it’s not just birds attacking people in wetlands—it’s also happening among the pecking order. And in some wetlands, the gulls are winning. Check out this bald eagle attacking a swan mid-flight last week in British Columbia: Don’t worry, the swan makes it. My favorite bird, the Great Blue Heron, has always fascinated me—but then I know its true power. With a forceful speed and grace, blue herons have attacked men who got too close. This description from a New York Times article about a historic heron attack in 1883 is something of a horror scene:

For those venturing into wetlands during the bird breeding seasons, take care. Here are some tips for living near swooping birds’ habitat during breeding season:
How to Live with Swooping Birds during Nesting Season (Florida)

What to do in case of a potential swooping bird attack:

  1. Avoid the “swoop” area—this is an open area between stands of trees, like a marsh, a wet meadow, but could also be a recreational park area.
  2. If riding a bike, wear a helmet, and if birds begin to swoop, get off the bike and walk it to safety. Swooping birds can cause a cyclist to have an accidental injury.
  3. Warn others. If there are others who might be unaware of swooping birds, such as children, let them know to be observant or to avoid the area, especially during certain birds’ breeding seasons.
  4. Travel in a group. Most birds only swoop down onto individuals.
  5. Be confident and face a swooping bird. Like tigers, birds tend to attack prey that are facing away from them.
  6. Do not panic and run. It will only encourage a bird to continue its attack.
  7. Wear a hat in the area where there are swooping birds.
  8. Paint “eyes” on the back of your hat. Wearing sunglasses on the back of a hat has the same effect.
  9. Holding a stick or umbrella over one’s head will deter a bird attack.
  10. Do not harass, interfere or throw stones at birds. This only makes them more aggressive and defensive, especially if they have nests nearby.
  11. Do not destroy nests.
  12. Do not feed or try to befriend swooping birds.

-List adapted from the Department of Sustainability, Victoria, Australia