Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish - James Prosek (2010)
Chapter 3. Eels in Maoridom
Stella August had drafted an itinerary for my monthlong visit, titled “Eel Adventure in New Zealand,” and seemed as enthusiastic as I was to learn more from her people about eel traditions. And that’s why I believed she would be there to meet me on the day and the hour we had planned.
Having flown halfway around the world, I was relieved to find her at the Burger King parking lot past the second roundabout in Hamilton. Stella stood coolly outside the driver’s-side door of her car, a medium-sized attractive girl with long, dark hair, wearing board shorts and a T-shirt with surfer logos.
“Hey there,” she said when I pulled up. “Welcome to New Zealand.”
I had been working on my book about eels for well over a year when my friend David Seidler, a screenwriter in Santa Monica, asked me one day if I had heard about the sacred eels in New Zealand. I hadn’t. David had lived in New Zealand through the 1970s, was married to a Maori woman, and learned about Polynesian culture through her network of Maori family and friends. David told his “mate,” a Maori bush guide named DJ, that he had an American friend who wanted to come down to En-Zed to do research on eels in Maori culture. DJ’s girlfriend, Nikki, said that her young cousin Stella had recently completed her graduate thesis on the migration of glass eels—that is, baby eels (called glass eels because they’re still transparent when first entering freshwater from the sea)—and that she might be just the one to help.
I began an e-mail correspondence with Stella, and she agreed to be my guide. My visit would be an opportunity to listen to men who had grown up fishing and hunting in New Zealand, speaking a language and practicing traditions that had gone largely silent and underground since the arrival of the British in the late eighteenth century.
Stella was just winding down her years as a student at Waikato University and lived, for the time being, near the campus. She shared a flat with her sister, Wikitoria (Wiki), and their best friend, Kare, a law student. There was a general feeling of excitement among the young women because Stella and Wiki had just completed and handed in their master’s theses.
“Did you know,” Wiki said when I first walked into their place, “this is literally the first day of sunshine we’ve had in weeks?”
“Yes,” added Kare, “we’ve had terrible flooding, some of the worst in a lifetime. Entire houses have slipped into rivers. Hillsides have collapsed, they’re so saturated with moisture, burying roads and sheep and trees.”
Stella pointed out that the excess water from the storms, a disaster and annoyance to humans, was an opportunity for eels to escape from inland ponds they’ve occupied for decades, making a break for the sea, to the spawning grounds.
“I didn’t always like eels,” Stella said, cicadas humming loudly in the rimu trees outside. “When my father brought them home I wouldn’t go near them. I thought they were the most hideous fish ever! I came to love them, but only after spending time with them. They’re so cool!” Stella was half sitting, half lying on the couch, backlit by the sun. She and Kare were twenty-four years old and Wiki was two years younger.
“Cool, are they?” Kare said, laughing. “I always thought they were a little strange.”
“A lot of people we’re going to visit,” Stella said, “when I rang them up I told them I wanted to bring an American by who is doing research on eels in Maori culture, the first thing they said was, ‘Why does he want to know about eels?’ They were a bit suspicious. I told them you had gone all over the world studying eels—then, you know, they started to get it.”
“But why would they be suspicious?” I asked.
“Well, it’s like this,” Stella said. “They’ve got a lifetime of experience which traditionally they shared only with members of their hapu, or subtribe. Why should they share their knowledge with someone who walks in off the street? They’re distrustful of science.”
“I’m not a scientist,” I protested.
“It’s not your profession directly, but you operate in part with a Western science mind. They see things differently. To give you an example, I went to this eel conference in Christchurch, where all the leading eel experts in New Zealand gathered. Don Jellyman, probably the most famous ichthyologist in New Zealand—he’s at NIWA [National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research]—was delivering a paper on their attempts to track large migrant eels from the river mouth to their spawning grounds with tags. He explained that the ten satellite pop-up tags attached to ten large female eels had provided very little clear data about where the spawning area was located.* When Don sat down, Kelly Davis, whom we will see on this trip, got up to represent the Maori point of view. He addressed Don directly, in front of everyone. ‘Our ancestors have known for thousands of years that the glass eels come up the river in spring, and the adults migrate out in the fall. Why do you need to know where they go? What good will it do the fish to find the house where they breed? ‘ Of course, there was very little Don could say.”
Not a moment seemed to go by that Stella did not remind me that we would be meeting with the most knowledgeable people on eels in all New Zealand. “Well, as a pakeha [foreigner or white person], you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see this side of Maori culture,” she said to me as we went out to get some lunch.
Over a meat pie and soda, Stella picked up on what Kelly Davis had said at the eel conference. “Why do we have to understand everything that isn’t understandable?” she said. “Everyone wants to unlock everything. I’m conflicted because I’m Maori. I don’t want to know where the eels go, yet I’ve studied their movements in the rivers.”
The paper that Stella had just finished and handed in for her master’s degree, titled “Arrival Patterns and Environmental Cues Associated with the Upstream Migration of Glass Eels into the Tukituki River, Hawke’s Bay,” was a valuable contribution to the literature of eel biology. And yet the graphs and charts, the seeming absoluteness of the scientific effort, seemed somehow disingenuous to her.
When we returned to Stella’s flat, we settled again in the living room. I looked at a few photos in frames on the mantel before sitting down. Wiki, who was reading, folded her book and put it on her lap.
“That’s our father, Robert August,” she said, pointing to a photo of a Maori man superimposed over a picture of a misty beach. “His nickname was Falla. He died in a fishing accident.”
Both girls had inherited their father’s Polynesian features—dark skin and eyes, black hair. Stella later took out an album and showed me a photo of her father hoisting a huge eel speared through the head. He held the end of the spear like a vaulting pole. The eel had its body wrapped around the handle like the snake on the rod of Asclepius, the common symbol of modern medicine.
The subject of conversation drifted to different subjects as the afternoon drew long shadows on the ground, and we cracked a few Tui beers. Talk flowed to things intended to prepare me for what I might see and hear.
The first element of my education was the taniwha (pronounced “tanifa”).*
“A taniwha,” Wiki said, “is something that makes itself known at certain times to certain people. Sometimes to warn them of danger, like a guardian. Friends of mine who live on a farm not far from here, at one time or other, have seen this creature with cow legs, half human, crossing their land.”
Stella pointed out that the taniwha can assume many shapes, but more often than not it takes the form of a giant eel.**
“If you harm a taniwha,” Stella said, “if you spear or capture an eel that is a taniwha, it will cry like a baby or bark like a dog, or change colors. Something about it will seem strange. It will indicate that it is not like the others. If you kill a taniwha eel, you have a makutu, a curse, put on you. You start going crazy, like you’re possessed. Then you’ve broken tapu—something sacred or off-limits.”*
“Spirits usually come out at night,” Wiki said, elaborating on the idea of a curse. “Young women are taught not to cut their hair or fingernails after dark, or a spirit can take them and you could be given a makutu. There are things like this that our father taught us to do, but we never questioned why. We didn’t know they were Maori rituals.”
The sisters’ Maori learning was strong in areas such as fishing and gathering seafood, but less so in female matters, as their mother was English. At their father’s funeral, a family member grieved separately from the rest of the group. Wiki learned it was because the woman was pregnant, and that pregnant or menstruating women were not allowed inside the cemetery—it was tapu, forbidden. She wondered how many tapu she had broken without knowing it, and how many concerned friends and family had politely looked the other way.
This revelation is outlined in detail in Wiki’s own largely autobiographical master’s thesis, “The Maori Female: Her Body, Spirituality, Sacredness, and Mana, a Space Within Spaces.” It is less scientific and more cultural than her sister’s thesis on eels.
A central argument of Wiki’s paper is that British colonization upset a balance between Maori men and women and compromised the mana, or integrity, of Maori women.
“Balance,” Wiki writes, “is an important part of the holistic worldview Maori hold.” To the Maori, nature and culture are one and the same.
The Maori worldview acknowledges the interconnectedness of all living things. The colonials—whom the Maori called pakeha, meaning “touch of a different breath”—tended to dismantle nature, categorize and classify it. In their lust to find order in nature, to name and possess it, they for the most part ignored the nuances of Maori culture, and ultimately were successful in their mission, whether conscious or subconscious, to subvert it. Partly because of New Zealand’s distance from England and the fierceness of the Maori warriors, the British were never able to physically conquer the Maori. But they succeeded in breaking them culturally and spiritually.
In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. The treaty was written in Maori and English, and its tenets are vague at best. Maori rights to land and water are contested to this day in New Zealand—the wounds of colonization are still wide open. I could feel the tension in the room with Stella and Wiki, trying to find their own balance between needing to know their Maori father’s past and acknowledging that their mother was English, between science and customary beliefs. And though I had met them only hours before, I could already see that the Maori side of them was winning.
“At the end of the trip we’ll be staying with DJ at Double Crossing,” Stella said. “That’ll be a good time to sit down and make sure we both know where we’re coming from.” She paused, then said, “About what you’re going to write.”
Were there things that could not be written about, I wondered, because they were sacred, or because they were incapable of being explained?
We had a second Tui beer as Wiki prepared a chicken dinner for us. It was now dark outside and a cool breeze passed through the house. I was tired and disoriented from travel. We talked about music, and things twentysomethings talk about. But then an article in that day’s paper brought the conversation around to the taniwha again.
According to Stella, the Mercer-Longswamp “taniwha site” controversy had been in the news a lot of late. It had started two years before when the New Zealand government began to improve the expressway from Auckland to Hamilton. At the village of Meremere there had always been a curve in the road to avoid a swamp—an oxbow of the Waikato River. Transit New Zealand wanted to take the curve out of the road and put the highway straight through. Working in the swamp one day, a member of the road crew lifted up a giant white eel in the bucket of the bulldozer. Many of the construction workers were Maori, and when they saw the big eel, they fled the site.
Since the incident, the government and Transit New Zealand seemed reluctant to legally acknowledge the presence of a mythological creature. Transit New Zealand wanted to straighten the highway across the swamp because they claimed the curve in the road had caused many accidents. The local Maori hapu, or subtribe, Ngati Naho, countered that many more tragic accidents had occurred at the spot since construction began, because the taniwha had been disturbed and was angry.
Not all Maori agreed. A local kaumatua, or elder, Tui Adams, whose grandson had died in a car accident at the site, was quoted in the Dominion Post as saying that he didn’t believe the giant eel was responsible for the tragedies: “I don’t subscribe to the idea that these taniwha come out and cause problems because a road’s going through. Taniwha are actually guardians, they have always been more helpful than non-helpful.”
Some thought the controversy had more to do with raising the profile of the Maori fight for customary rights against the mostly white government. The giant eel, long-lived, resilient, and rearing its head, had become a kind of symbol of a cultural revival.
A resolution was imminent, the article in that day’s paper said. Rima Herbert, a spokesperson for the Ngati Naho, made a public statement after discussions with Transit New Zealand. “This is a significant cultural site for us,” he said, “and we have got Transit to agree to a modification to their design, which preserves most of the site. We have asked Transit to ensure that when critical works are taking place, a member of our hapu is given the opportunity to be present to ensure that our cultural values are protected.”
On their website, Transit New Zealand’s regional projects manager, Chris Allen, did not formally acknowledge that a taniwha existed in the swamp, but explained the need for preservation of the site in environmental terms. “While a lot of the area we are working in is swamp, this section over about 30 meters appears to be a spring which may be significant for a large stand of kahikatea trees, which need to be protected.”
As I wiped my plate with a bit of bread at Stella and Wiki’s kitchen table, crinkling the newspaper and reading quotes aloud, I was, frankly, in a state of disbelief. When in America would a highway project be halted because of a god eel? I confessed to the sisters that this was my first exposure to Maori culture, that I was starting fresh, and I sensed an awakening in myself.
I told Stella and Wiki that my only previous knowledge of Maori traditions was from a 1929 book by Elsdon Best called Fishing Methods and Devices of the Maori. Born in 1856 in Tawa Flats, New Zealand, Best, the son of British immigrants, is often referred to as New Zealand’s “foremost ethnographer of Maori society.” I had found the book, a good two-thirds of which was devoted to eel fishing, to be rich and informative. But the very mention of the name drew contempt from Stella.
“Elsdon Best,” Stella said—in her Kiwi accent it sounded more like beast. “He’s not looked on that favorably by Maori. He may have recorded some valuable information about fishing nets and weirs and artifacts and things, but for the most part he wasn’t very sympathetic to the Maori way of life.”
That night in my sleeping bag on the floor of Stella’s room, buzzed and jet-lagged, I remembered my first trip to New Zealand seven years earlier—a trout-fishing trip with my best friend after graduating from college. We caught many large brown trout, hiked in the mountains, and camped under brilliant stars. We nearly drove a rental car off a ravine into a river, and in general had a great adventure. Yet for me the trip had been disappointing. After a month of bumming around the North and South Islands, I left New Zealand without ever really feeling any connection to the place. The people we met in bars were transient Kiwis of European origin, or seasonal Brits shearing sheep. If we came across Maori, they were off in a corner, tightlipped. I couldn’t remember having a conversation with a single one. This trip, I felt, drifting off to sleep, would be different.
The first written account of a taniwha is most likely the one recorded by Captain Cook on his 1777 voyage to the South Seas. While anchored in Queen Charlotte Sound off the South Island of New Zealand, Cook wrote the following about statements by a local Maori: “We had another piece of intelligence from him, more correctly given, though not confirmed by our own observations, that there are snakes and lizards there of an enormous size. He said, they sometimes seize and devour men.”
Maori would not have known a lizard of the size Cook related, and would never have seen a snake, as there are no native snakes in New Zealand. What he described, “eight feet in length, and big round as a man’s body,” was most likely a longfin eel.
Taniwha or not, the longfin eel is an impressive creature. Like other members of New Zealand’s distinct fauna—the now extinct moa birds (killed off by the first Polynesian settlers for food), more than twelve feet tall; the native kakapo (the world’s largest parrot, now endangered); and the largest living insect, a kind of cricket called a weta—the longfin eel has a tendency toward gigantism. Capable of growing to over eighty pounds and living more than a hundred years, it is the largest and longest-lived freshwater eel species in the world.*
The longfin has been a consistent and available food source for Maori as long as they have been on the islands, and for that reason, along with its impressive stature, it has garnered awe and respect, inspiring a good share of stories.**
For all his apparent shortcomings, Elsdon Best devoted hundreds of pages of his books to the Maori’s long association with the eel. Through his work we are led to believe that the eel is among the most important creatures in Maori culture, outshining the shark, the whale, and the kiwi bird put together. By sheer mass and availability of protein, the eel was at certain times of year the Maoris’ most important source of food. Best recorded more than three hundred local Maori words for the freshwater eel in its different life stages.
I was yet to see my first New Zealand longfin eel, but Stella assured me that this would soon change. As my guide, she felt that it was important I experience the subjects of our adventure before we started hearing stories about them.
About ninety miles southwest of Hamilton, in a coastal village called Kawhia, an elderly British woman was feeding eels in a small spring-fed stream in her backyard. Such feeding areas were relatively common in New Zealand but were normally kept quiet to avoid poaching of the valuable eel meat.
Traditionally, Maori had sacred eel ponds, where the eels would be fed daily. Sometimes the eels were brought to these ponds and kept there, with no access to the sea, where they would live, some Maori say, for hundreds of years. But most of the time eels were kept in the pool of a creek or river and could come and go as they pleased. Often they stayed for a long time, perhaps because of free meals or the love that was imparted by the people around them. But the eels’ ultimate goal was to store up energy to get to the spawning grounds. No one had yet found the spawning place of the New Zealand longfin eel, though scientists suspected that they migrated to the north and spawned near Tonga over the Kermadec Trench.
“The eel’s life is about travel,” Stella said to me as she drove. “The only reason they stay in the stream is to store food for their long journey.” The longfin eel travels from the sea to the headwaters of rivers and streams, spending an average of thirty years in freshwater before returning to the sea to spawn.*
“The eels’ movement is universal in Maori culture,” Stella said. “As the eels move, they leave the path of life behind them.”
We exited the main highway and drove through rugged farmland to the coast. Intermittent lush green stands of native bush—ponga (tree ferns) and tall grasses—held on to the slopes of steep ravines, land that could not be farmed. Stella pulled the car off at a convenience store, and I followed her to a back shelf, where she grabbed a few cans of dog food. “For the eels,” she said.
“How big are these eels?” I asked Stella as she brought the cans to the counter. “I mean, are they really as long as a person?”
“You’ll see,” she said.
Down the road a bit further the smells of the sea became stronger. Stella slowed the car when we were in full view of the ocean. She pulled off the road at a moss-covered gate where a small sign hung; on it was painted a black eel. Stella opened the gate and we drove down the gravel drive to a modest ranchstyle home.
Barely visible beside the house was a pool of water that collected seepage from a cold spring. Below the pool ran a small brook, choked with watercress. Stella and I got out the cans of dog food and opened them. An old man came out of the house to greet us.
“We’ve come to see your eels,” Stella said.
“Oh, them eels isn’t mine, they’re her thing,” he said, referring to his wife. Soon the wife appeared and the old man went inside. She introduced herself as Beryl and described how the pool of eels had come to be.
“We moved here ten years ago. The place was covered in blackberry and gorse. When we cleared the yard we found the spring, and dug it out just enough to hold a few ducks.”
Soon the crystal pool was rimmed with a green collar of watercress, and large dark shapes began to appear as if from nowhere, attracted by the bread that Beryl fed her ducks.
“I don’t know where they’d come from. I guess they’d always been there.” She looked into the pool. “They just keep getting bigger and bigger. They’re my babies, just like the three bulls, the two goats, the dog, the dozen odd chickens.”
The ducks, Beryl added, had relocated to another pond on the property since the eels had showed up.
“Are you ready to see some eels?” Stella asked.
“Let me get a bit of meat,” the woman said.
“Oh, don’t go to the trouble,” Stella said. “We have dog food.”
The old woman insisted it was time for her to feed them anyway, and soon returned from the house with a bit of steak. She tied the steak to a string and we watched her wade out into the shallow pool in her gumboots. As she waved the steak in the current, I saw a few large heads emerge from the watercress, seemingly from nowhere. Giving in to a natural reflex, I took a step back.
“Don’t be afraid,” Beryl said, “they won’t harm you. Unless you’re holding food—they might bite you by accident.”
As Beryl lifted the steak on the line out of the water, a huge eel, about as big around as the calf of her leg, lifted its head out, dancing to and fro to keep its body up, not unlike a cobra.
“Oh my God!” I said aloud, my mouth agape.
When she lowered the meat into the water, five or six big eels, their heads five to eight inches across the back, vied for a piece. They grabbed on, making loud sucking sounds to try to get an advantage on the steak, and then they rolled their bodies to tear pieces off.*
Stella had taken off her flip-flops and was walking barefoot across the grass. She spread the contents of one of the cans of dog food on the grass near the edge of a pool. With a stick, she pushed some of the meat chunks toward the pool. A single big eel came to the rim of the concrete ledge to investigate. It sniffed a few times, then tilted its head and body, propelled itself over the ledge onto the grass, and began taking pieces of the dog food into the side of its mouth. A few smaller eels followed, and soon the grass was wet with slime.
I could see their features clearly: wide mouths, broad lips, and nostrils like tubular horns. These eels were big, but the biggest eels in the pool barely approached the ledge, hanging back in the darker depths. Once in a while I caught a glimpse of a real monster, exposing its head from the thick mats of watercress, but never its whole body.
Stella feeding eels by the pool at Kawhia
Stella squatted on the grass, her long black hair nearly touching the ground, letting the eels glide up between her bare feet, touching one and then another on the top of the head, petting them.
Tuna—the Maori word for eel, and on some Pacific islands a synonym for the phallus—is also the name of a prominent figure in Maori mythology, a god in eel form, often found wrestling with Maui, the Pacific islands’ equivalent of Hercules. In one story, which varies from place to place, Maui finds Tuna in bed with his wife, Hine, while she is sleeping. Maui chops Tuna in half, the head becoming all the freshwater eels of the world and the tail all the saltwater eels of the world.
It is thought that the stories in which the snake plays the role of monster-seducer and/or guardian trickled down into the Pa- cific from India and Indonesia to the islands of Micronesia and Polynesia. The Pacific Islands, however, are largely devoid of native snakes, so the role is assumed by the creature closest in appearance and movement, the eel.
The eel is not always simply an unwelcome seducer in native stories; sometimes it is a pet or a lover. One of the most common eel stories in Polynesia involves Tuna the eel and a beautiful girl named Sina.
One day Sina goes to the spring-fed pool to get water for her mother’s cooking. She dips the pot in the water, and when she gets home, she realizes there’s a baby eel in it. Sina nurtures the eel as a pet and comes to love it. When it grows too large for the pot, Sina’s mother puts it in a tub of water outside their home. The eel gets bigger and bigger, outgrowing the tub, so they release it back in the spring hole it came from. Every time Sina goes to bathe in the pool the eel comes out and swims around her playfully, but eventually it gets so big that Sina becomes afraid of it. One day, Sina is doing her washing in the pool and the eel wraps around her leg, violating her with his tail. She runs home to the village and tells her mother and father, and a warrior from the village goes down to the spring to kill Tuna the eel. Sina follows, and as the warrior is about to chop Tuna’s head off, the eel asks Sina to bury his head in the sand and then visit the site day after day. Sina promises she will, and cries because she still has love for Tuna, who had once been her pet. When the warrior kills Tuna, she takes the eel’s severed head and buries it in the sand, and from that spot grows the first coconut tree. The Samoans and other islanders say the eyes of the coconut are the eyes of the eel, and the soft part below the eyes, from which you drink the coconut milk, is Tuna’s mouth. So every time Sina drank from the coconut, she was kissing Tuna.*
Tuna’s head and the coconut tree
What I’d witnessed on the banks of the spring-fed pool in Kawhia was some strange reenactment of a Pacific Island myth—at least in terms of the girl and her affection for the eel. The vision of Stella by the spring, with the eels at her feet, compounded the awe of seeing such a large fish feeding out of water. But somehow, too, it breathed life into what I had felt were beautiful but otherwise lifeless stories. Seeing the large eels and Stella together, I instantly understood that what I had been getting in books was a very small part of a deep and old relationship that carried the weight of time. Expecting to understand the impact of a Polynesian myth from just reading it was like trying to know the glow of a flowering plant from its pressed and dried blooms. The oral stories had been compromised the minute they were written down, then more so when they were taken out of the environment in which they were created.
I only later realized, during further travels in Polynesia and Micronesia, why the stories of Hine, Maui, Tuna, and the taniwha had seemed pale to me on paper. They evolved to be heard, and not just anywhere, but amidst the sublimity of nature: in a dark forest, near a booming waterfall. The tales did not transcend their original contexts well.
From a Darwinian point of view, that was the error of the indigenous people’s spiritual platform. The survival of the Maori faith (as with the faiths of other indigenous peoples with animal deities) depended on a connection with nature being maintained, and also on nature remaining intact with all its creatures. When colonists came from Britain and elsewhere and developed the land, the wilderness became fragmented, and so did the native people. Movies about modern Maori, such as Once Were Warriors or Whale Rider, show a broken people struggling to keep a foothold in cultural forms that existed before colonization, while having to adapt to the patriarchal structure and hierarchy of the Western world. Because the health of Maori culture relies on the health of nature, the Maori cultural resurgence, which Stella and Wiki are at the forefront of, is inevitably an environmental conservation movement. To resurrect a nature-based spiritual society, you need nature to be intact, to protect the sources of awe that inspired spirituality in the first place. What happens to the taniwha if the giant eels that brought that monster to our imaginations become endangered or extinct?
I had been awakened by what I had seen: the longfin eel, a magnificent creature, a living myth. The mass and muscle of the large eels had illuminated the Polynesian stories I’d read at home. I understood the impossibility of a foreigner like me ever fully grasping the nuances of the Maori spiritual world, but having grown up in nature and been moved by its wonders, I felt I had an inkling of that connection with what has been referred to as the numinous.*
In reading Elsdon Best, I had gotten the sense that he understood the limitations of his recorded material regarding Maori culture. He had felt the gravity of the stories the Maori told him, but knew he was not getting the whole picture—and even if he had been, he felt, he would never be able to fully communicate it. To add to his frustrations, the culture he was attempting to record was changing rapidly before his eyes. In one instance, while recounting a tale of Maui and Tuna that a Maori elder had told him, Best wrote: “It is not a good illustration of a Maori recital, approaching as it does too closely the clipped, cramped, unadorned modern style of diction.” He was witnessing a profound transition in mind and spirit of the native people, whose culture, language, and religion were being supplanted.
Where the nature-based faith of the Maori was failing, the imported Anglican faith of the British colonists flourished. Christianity is portable. It does not rely on anything being intact. It can be practiced and understood in a city or in the countryside, under a roof or out in the open, by any people anywhere. But the faith of the Maori is specific to New Zealand. It cannot be easily packed up and taken somewhere else. Polynesian faith would not be comprehensible in Alaska, where the totems are eagles and bears instead of eels and kiwi birds.
Many of the elder Maori that Stella and I visited believed that colonists ultimately diminished the Maori not with guns but by cutting the forests, building dams, introducing insecticides and herbicides, and making the native bush less and less contiguous. The colonists brought with them their own religion to replace the indigenous one, but they also brought their own familiar species of animals—the trout, the hare, the stag—that in some cases successfully displaced the native creatures, the totems of the Maori.*
The next morning Stella and I set off from Hamilton toward Hawke’s Bay and the more remote east coast of the North Island. We were headed to visit our first Maori elder, Brown Wiki, a history teacher at Hastings Boys High School (and the father of Stella’s flatmate, Kare).
Brown was an imposing man—broad-shouldered, heavyset, with dark freckled skin, big round eyes, a flat nose, and purplish lips that looked like they had been painted. With permission, I set down my small digital recorder and took an account of what he chose to share, making occasional notes in my spiral notebook. He had agreed to our meeting as a favor to his daughter. When he spoke, he mostly addressed Stella.
“Well,” Brown asked, “what would you like to talk about?” Stella explained to him why I had come. Outside, schoolboys in uniform played handball against a wall. A mild breeze blew through the classroom where we sat.
Brown said that every hapu has its own eel stories and every individual in that hapu has his or her own version of those stories; this makes the stories very personal and diverse. Brown said that although Maori culture had been forced underground by colonization and the language forbidden in schools, it had always been there and was coming back with force. Like Stella’s father, Brown had learned Maori language at home from his grandparents.
“The older men we’ll be visiting,” Stella had said, “they grew up speaking Maori in the home. They’ll be telling a story to you that they heard in Maori, and as they tell it, they’ll be translating it in their heads. Words have different meanings in different sentences. In different circumstances different words apply. When the Maori language is translated into English, it makes for beautiful sentences.”
“Eels did not live on earth originally,” Brown began in his deep voice with its Kiwi accent. “The eels were all up in the heaven. When the planet they were on came too close to the sun and was too dry, they followed Tawhaki’s trail down [Tawhaki is a godlike being connected with thunder and lightning]. Here on earth they found plenty of moisture, plenty of water. The eels we eat today are small edible eels compared to the big ones that followed Tawhaki.
“The Pakipaki [River] down the road had a guardian eel. The eel was guarding the sustenance of the family. The family knew which eels to keep for consumption and which to keep as guardians. They could tell by the shape of the head and the color of the eyes. The really big eels, their eyes can turn red. Maori people treated guardian eels as part of the family, feeding them and bringing them offerings.”
Brown proceeded to tell us about how construction on State Highway 1 to straighten the stretch of road through the swamp in Meremere had been stalled by the guardian eel. His story was similar to what the newspaper and Stella had said on the matter, but in his own words.
“Why didn’t they take the road straight through in the first place?” Brown asked. “Because, well, there’s a good reason—apparently that’s where the kaitiaki eel, the guardian eel, lives, in the swampy part of the bush.
“And apparently there was a digger, trying to drain the water, came up with a huge eel. It was a huge monster. And that’s why, going through the bush, they halted. And had to agree to divert the road again.
“But you see, some of these things, they either … they’ve got no understanding of legends like that. They were up against something they ignored. We can laugh, but there is still things like that. What they were up against was real, it’s real, those things.”
Brown said that the eels in the Meremere swamp came out of the Waikato River, which is known for having some of the largest eels in New Zealand. He said that the Waikato taniwha eel is so big that it has to go out to sea to turn around, and the average eels from the river are large enough that you can use their skins as riding chaps.
In freshwater, Brown said, the taniwha usually takes the form of an eel. In salt water it is most often a shark. “Where I was brought up the eel was not a staple. We lived off the sea. When we fished for sharks it seemed like you’d smell like shark forever. They would call in whales to the harbor with a conch and do an organized culling of the young. Our people came to New Zealand following the whales from Tonga and Samoa in A.D. 950. They followed the whales along the currents. Some migrated back to Tonga with the whales.”
Sometimes the taniwha is an outright angry monster; other times it is a kind of guardian of the resource that only acts when humans break tapu, some sacred restriction. In Hawke’s Bay there is a story of a guardian that took the form of a shark named moremore.
“We had a friend who went out to dive for shellfish,” Brown went on. “We told him, ‘Don’t be so greedy, don’t take so much.’ But one day he was bit by a shark. Then on his way back he was stung by a stingray. The guardian shark warned him. The shark made his presence known.”
Driving away from the boys’ school, Stella said to me that Brown had been holding back. “Because you were in the room,” she said. “Because he was trying to explain things on your terms.” We drove on for some distance before she spoke again. “What you understand as myth,” she said to me, “in our culture, they are not myths—they are stories about real events. Before, the mystical was part of everyday life, the real mixed with the fantasy. There was no distinction made between the two.”
She continued, sounding slightly irritated. “If I were writing a book,” she said, “I would not try to describe what a taniwha is. A taniwha is completely personal—your opinion of it is based on your own experiences. Yes, it is a mythical being in Maori culture, but there are differences between hapu and between iwi [tribes] all over New Zealand.”
Elsdon Best, in his book Maori Religion and Mythology, Part II, wrote of the taniwha in the past tense. “The taniwha,” he writes, “were supposed to dwell in remote places, in the depth of the forests, on rugged mountains and high bush-clad ranges, in broken country where cliffs, canyons and caves are found, and in deep-water lakes, rivers and ponds.” He seemed to suggest that the taniwha had somehow gone extinct before the end of the nineteenth century. “As our Maori folk become more and more Europeanised,” he observed, “one hears less of supernormal beings and miracles.” What, I wondered, did Best mean by this? Was he being ironic? That one hears less of supernormal beings because they never existed? Or was it that Maori had chosen to speak less of things such as taniwha because they’d learned a foreigner could never grasp the concept of one, and that even if they tried to explain their belief in them, they would only be ridiculed?
Stella did not believe that Best deserved any credit for subtlety. “They were not sensitive,” Stella said of the European ethnographers of Maori culture. The authors who recorded the oral stories of native people, she told me, saw them as quaint folktales, because they did not believe them.
“I believe that life is governed by many unseen forces,” Stella said emphatically.
As we neared the city of Napier, the presence of the sea was palpable. We drove by vineyards glimpsed through gateways between high hedgerows. This region, along the coast called Hawke’s Bay, was in the territory of Stella’s iwi, Ngati Kahungunu (pronounced “nati kahununu”), and we had an appointment to meet some of the tribal leaders at the runanga, or management center for the iwi.
“They wanted me to bring you by for an official welcome,” Stella said to me.
The runanga building itself was modest and unadorned, like a small country school. Stella and I walked into a kind of conference room where I was welcomed warmly by a man named Digger, handsome, middle-aged. A few other Maori men and women sat around a large table. It looked as though we had interrupted a regular meeting. Stella and I sat down in the only two vacant seats.
“Welcome,” Digger said, rather formally, “as a visitor to New Zealand, a friend of Stella’s, and a friend of our iwi. The eel has been considered a pest by pakeha, because they prey on the trout, introduced by the British. I hope you will find that the eel is a cultural icon to all Maori throughout New Zealand—rich Maori, middle Maori, and poor Maori. We wish you luck in conveying the importance of the eel worldwide.”
Digger then told an eel story. All the others in the room listened.
“I grew up near Lake Waikaremoana,” Digger said. “Hundreds of years ago, the lake had been cut off from the sea by a rockslide. No one knows how the eels got there from the sea, though some Maori speculate they’ve been there since before the rockslide. The eels there are old and big. The females circle around the lake in fall when they get the urge to spawn, trying to find a way out to sea, and they keep circling until the urge goes away. They put their noses up above the surface of the water to try to smell the rain. They’re waiting for a big typhoon to come and wash out the rockslide so they can get out to sea. But in the meantime they keep living, and growing bigger. The scientists don’t believe that they will keep waiting, that they can live for hundreds of years. I’m sick of scientists saying, ‘Where’s the proof?’ ” Digger said. “Saying that is talking against our Maori culture. Eh, Stella?”
Stella sat humbly in her seat and gave a quiet “Yeah.”*
Stella had used my visit as an opportunity to fulfill an overdue obligation: to give a brief presentation on her master’s thesis work, the education that the iwi had assisted with scholarships. The runanga board members who sat around the table were mostly silent, prepared to listen to what they had invested in.
The iwi seemed to inhabit contentious ground, between wanting their young Maori to have the advantages and opportunities (such as a university degree) that would help them compete in a westernized world and being wary and skeptical of that world. Stella said to me later that she had met with a lot of goodwill from her iwi for the academic work she’d done.
“‘You’re so young, and female, and you’ve done all this work on eels,’ they say. They want to help me. A lot of people have said to me that they wish there were more young Maori people like me doing what I’m doing.”
Stella introduced herself: “My mountain is Kahuranaki, my river is Tukituki, my hapu is Ngati Kurukuru, my marae is Taupunga, my iwi is Ngati Kahungunu, and my name is Stella August.” And then she read aloud from a two-page abstract of her paper. Her investigations were concerned with how moon phases and water temperature affect the migration of shortfin and longfin glass eels up her tribal river, the Tukituki. Over two different years, September through November (the New Zealand spring), under the stars six nights a week, often with friends, Stella counted the small fish (two to three inches long) that came into her nets. In the first year 50,287 glass eels were captured, counted, and released, and in the second year 19,954. The largest single-night capture occurred in the first year, 18,619 fish, coinciding with the largest spring tide, a new moon, and rising river water temperature (she found that the glass eels were more likely to move upstream into freshwater when the freshwater was warmer than the seawater). Stella explained to her audience that through this work she had formed an even more intimate relationship with the river and the eels.
At the end of the presentation, Digger thanked Stella. The others in the room remained mostly silent and expressionless. They got up and shook my hand and gave Stella hugs as we left.
Everyone we talked to remarked about the big storms that I had just missed. Stella explained that the heavy rains had probably allowed all the migrating silver eels to go downstream, even eels that had been trapped in ponds and puddles with no access to the sea for many years.
“Eels will cross over land in wet weather,” Stella said. “On rainy nights on the farm, our cat Buddy brings eels up on the porch with their heads munched off. He catches them in the paddocks. His neck is covered in dried slime where the eel wrapped itself around him.”
All along the highway we saw “slips,” where hillsides stripped of vegetation by grazing sheep had become oversaturated with moisture and collapsed into rivers and across roads and bridges. Some of the slips looked like avalanches of rock, sod, and mud, maybe with a few sheep mixed in. Riverbanks were cut almost to the steps of homes, roads and bridges were blocked, and some houses had even fallen into the rivers, like one we passed on the Rangitikei River.
North of Napier at the far eastern end of Hawke’s Bay is a settlement called Whakaki, where the people are known as the Eel People. The kaumatua we visited at the marae (the social and religious gathering place for Maori) in Whakaki was named Walter Wilson.
“We’ve adapted to the eel title,” Walter said. “It gives us a distinction. We’re thick-skinned and slippery.”
In the town of Whakaki there is a lagoon that is separated from the sea most of the year by a bar of sand and gravel about three hundred feet wide, what Walter called a “shingle bar.” Periodically the bar is breached by storms, allowing young eels to enter in spring and mature eels to exit in fall. The unique topographical features of this “lake” attract the eels, and the Maori have been fishing them there for centuries. From the lawn of the marae you could see the lake and, immediately beyond, the ocean.
Walter said that traditionally in spring the Maori dig a channel from the sea to provide passage for the glass eels into the lake. In autumn the exodus of adults is more dramatic. The mature eels stage at the ocean side of the lagoon waiting for a storm, and when the big waves are pounding on the beach, they make a break for the ocean en masse over the shingle bar, sometimes in a huge ball. Walter described this natural phenomenon as Stella and I sat across a table from him in the marae. He rolled a cigarette from a bag of Port Royal tobacco, lit it, puffed, and deposited the ashes in a paua, or abalone, shell.
“This is when our people fish for the eels, during migration season, when the eels are staging by the lakeshore. The eels are waiting for what we call the tai tipi, the big tides. I wouldn’t call it a tsunami or whatever, but it’s a big wave caused by a storm out at sea. The eels gather by the thousands, you see them, and when the tai tipi arrives they go, they go, over the land, side by side, over the sand and the shingle.”
I asked Walter what alerts the fishermen—how do they know when the eels are beginning to gather for the run? He became slightly defensive.
“I know when to go down!” he said. “But I ain’t gonna tell you. I can’t take you to the place we fish. The trustees would have to decide if that’s okay.” He paused to tap ashes from his cigarette. “Why do you want to know? To explain it? The knowledge is used for money. My opinion is that we give away too much knowledge.”
By “we,” he meant the Maori people. He believed, for instance, that the stories told in the recent movie Whale Rider—a modest New Zealand production that had garnered praise from Hollywood—were used illegally, without permission. “This is Maori intellectual property,” he said.
Walter, who looked to be in his late sixties, had a reddish face and wore a wide-brimmed hat and a long-sleeved shirt. Stella and I followed him outside the marae into the bright sunlight. He took us in his truck to the beach, a short drive away, to see the dunes and the shingle where the eels cross. It was a black sand beach with pieces of white pumice and driftwood. The surf pounded loudly.
Walter said he couldn’t show us specifically where the eel nets were set. Traditionally an elder passes on his knowledge to one person before he dies, and that person isn’t searched for but makes him- or herself apparent. The knowledge is not shared with anyone else.
“It’s just how it’s done,” Walter said somewhat apologetically, changing his earlier tone. Then very abruptly, leading us down the sunny beach, he said, “Who owns the sun? Here you are, come see it yourself.”
We stood, our clothes blowing like flags behind our bodies. I was looking from the lake to the sea, from the sea to the lake and back, wondering what it would be like to witness thousands of eels crossing the bar.
“The dunes are so dynamic,” Stella said, watching the stiff sea breeze blow the sand into the air. “They are always changing.”
“That’s nature’s artistry, I call it,” Walter said, lifting a piece of driftwood from the sand.
Noticing that Walter’s attitude had softened, I decided to recast a previous question.
“How do you know when the typhoon is coming,” I asked him, “the tai tipi?”
“You can hear it,” he said. “It booms up in the bloody hills. That’s how you know it’s a tai tipi. The big, big waves come only now and then, and the eels make their way to the crest of the dune, at night, to catch the wave. And then they go. Once they get onto the ridge of the beach and they’re heading down into the sea, they’re gone.”
Walter said that when the eels are ready to leave, they develop a thicker skin, an “extra layer,” he called it. Their noses become more pointed, their skulls structurally change, and their eyes enlarge and cloud over in a bluish haze. These physiological changes are consistent with ones that other migratory freshwater eels undergo the world over.
As we were walking back to the marae, Walter said to me, “The only reason you’re here is because of my connection with Stella’s father.”
We sat in the marae, our faces flush from the wind and sun, and Walter made us a cup of tea. When Walter began speaking, I turned on my small digital recorder and placed it next to my notebook without asking permission. I was afraid that if I asked, Walter would say no.
“That’s why I asked Stella how much you want to know. Why do you want to know? For public consumption?” Walter said, addressing me. “I’m not being rude, that’s just a thing. This run of eels happened before Maori got here, before humans got here. As long as the lagoon has been here, that’s been happening.
“What happens here at Lake Whakaki is unique to this part of the world. The only other place that I know that it happens used to be Lake Ellesmere in the South Island. I’ve never been there to see it, but they tell me that it happens there, too.”*
Walter went on to talk about the health of the fishery and how it’s managed. For the Maori, the harvest season is mostly during migration, and if a thousand eels pass through a weir, net, or trap, they take only a hundred, just the ones that look good to eat. The fisheries regulations in New Zealand, Walter said, were faulty, because they managed the fisheries to let the small ones go and keep the big ones. “The problem is that the fish that are released are most often males, because males on average are much smaller, and all the big egg-bearing females are taken. The Crown has the nerve to tell us Maori how to manage a fishery we’ve been managing just fine for hundreds of years.”
Before leaving the marae, I asked Walter if he had any thoughts about where the eels go once they leave the lagoon for the sea.
“They’re going to die,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “They’re going out there to die. Once they have laid their eggs and fertil- ized those eggs, they all die. And some sharks out there have a great big banquet.”
“I’d love to see where they go,” I said.
“And I hope you never find out.”
As we drove away from the marae Stella scolded me. She said that several times during Walter’s monologue I had interrupted him to ask him to explain something, or repeat something I didn’t understand. Stella was adamant that I not interrupt any more of the people we were going to visit.
“Because Maori is an oral language, you are expected to listen,” she said. “That is your role in the conversation. If it’s your turn to speak, they’ll listen to you. If you miss something that they say, that’s your problem. Don’t interrupt to ask them to repeat themselves.”
The next morning there was a story in the local paper, Hawke’s Bay Today, of apakeha boy named Hayden who speared a giant eel in small stream running through his suburban neighborhood in Napier. The piece was headlined “Monster Eel Couldn’t Escape Hayden” and showed a photo of the nine-year-old boy triumphantly holding the dead eel draped over his shoulder.
The reporter’s slant was that for the boy it was an act of heroism, that this boy had slain a monster. In the days following, letters to the editor weighed in. One reader wrote: “I found the story of the boy and the eel appalling. How would Hawke’s Bay Today have reported it if it had been someone’s pet rabbit or cat which had been stalked, tortured, stabbed in the head and tail, dragged home, and put in the freezer?”
One Maori man came to the defense of the boy: “I feel it is very inappropriate for mature adults to pillory him and reduce his actions to a shameful and senseless deed. As adults we have gathered a lot of experiential knowledge, and most of us use it wisely. But as a young person, we are still moving into the realm of experience and achievement through adventure.”
Later that day we visited a Maori man named Haetia Hihi who had his own take on the story. “It was a fault of the boy’s elders,” he said, sitting in his home in Napier. “You can’t really fault the boy.”
Haetia told us a few stories of growing up eeling.
“We’d be sitting with our grandparents by the candle,” he said. “When the moths appear that was our signal—while we were having an evening meal. Take a piece of hoop iron and tie it to a piece of wood. You swing the hoop iron over the back of the eel and then gaff it. We call this ripi. The water was up to our knees. The matarau, the spear, had two prongs made of number eight fencing wire. Some people used a pitchfork. The boys would gaff them. The older people preferred no barb on the spear.”
The thing that was destroying the fishery wasn’t the boy in the ditch with a spear; it was the issuing of commercial licenses and the catching of eels for overseas markets. Haetia spoke of his people noticing a decline in the eel population. “Lately we put our hinaki [nets] in overnight, in our own river, the Esk, but the problem is there are no eels left around.”
The absence of eels, Haetia said, was leading to the end of certain Maori rituals. “Eels are eaten at wedding ceremonies. In Runana they still observe these practices of the past to catch the eel for ceremonies, weddings and such. Two or three men get naked and go into a lake. They know the holes in the bank where the big eels live. They get at either end of the hole and one man grabs the eel by the gill and pulls it out. These are big eels, over six feet long.” Haetia said at the wedding you see the big eels hanging before they are prepared for the party. But now the pakeha farmers have given permission to the licensed commercial fishermen to catch eels there. “They found where their holes were and they took all the big ones.”
Stella and I spent the night in a building that used to be a jail, on the property of a couple named Bruce and Kate. Bruce was a fishing and hunting guide on and around the Rangitikei River. Kate’s family owned more than ten thousand acres along the river. She was half Maori, though she had fair skin, fair hair, and freckles.
At dinner Bruce told a story of a small pond where they used to shoot ducks.
“The pond was no more than twenty feet across,” he said, “a small pond, but ducks came to it and we shot them. There were eels in the pond, lots, and big ones, and they would smell the blood when the ducks landed dead in the water, and if you didn’t retrieve the ducks fast, the eels’d grab them and eat them. Finally the farmer who owned the pond decided to take all the eels out because they were pests to the hunters. In that little pond they harvested over three ton of eel, and no one even knew how they got in there.”
In New Zealand, it seemed, almost everyone, Maori or pakeha, had an eel story.
In the morning, Stella and I visited Charlie Hamlin, who lived alone in a one-room flat in the settlement of Te Hauke. Charlie was eighty-two, old enough to have lived a traditional Maori childhood, where the entire village journeyed to the river to catch eels in a pa, or weir, during the autumn downstream migration.*
Stella told me before we arrived that Charlie was elderly and almost blind. A bed was in one corner of his quiet room, and we sat at a table near a small kitchen with a cooking range and a sink. The numbers in Charlie’s phone book were written an inch tall apiece with a black marker. There was a bucket of water next to the table.
“Mind that,” Charlie said, as I had almost tripped over it. “I catch rainwater for my tea. I don’t trust the water from the tap.”
“Would you like us to boil some water, Charlie?” Stella asked.
“Sure, sure, that would be nice. The kettle is on the stove, there’s water in it. And there’s a plate of eel here my son prepared.”
Stella got up to make tea. I stayed seated at the table across from Charlie.
“The frogs used to sing out here,” he said, adjusting his hearing aid. “When they sprayed, the frog eggs died. They spray Roundup on the drains to keep the culverts clear so that when it rains a lot it doesn’t back up with weeds and debris. But the Roundup burns the gills on the fish, and it kills the watercress, where the frogs hide, and kills the tadpoles, the primary food of the eels in our lake, Lake Poukawa. They introduced willows, perhaps for flood protection,” Charlie continued, “but the willows suck all the water out of the swamps. There are not many tadpoles or native fish. The giant kokopu are gone. They’re cleaning out the drains and they dredge up the mud and toss it up on the bank, and many young eels dry in the mud with it. You can’t bloody explain it to the regional council people. You can’t talk to the bloody pakeha about it, they’re bloody brainless.”
Charlie’s vision was bad enough that he couldn’t see that I was pakeha. But he had good reason to call the white politicians and farmers brainless.
Charlie said they sprayed the peaches with insecticide, and the poison spread to the ground and the mowers spread the poisoned clover. He was putting posts in the orchard when he was younger and stronger, he said, and the poison caused his skin to pock up on his arms; it got in his eyes and killed all the blood vessels. That’s how his eyes became white, and how he lost vision completely in his left eye.
Stella brought the tea and poured some in Charlie’s mug. “How many sugars, Charlie?” she asked.
“A few,” he said.
She spread a piece of smoked eel onto a cracker for him. “Not me,” he said. “I eat it all the time. You guys try it.” The smoked eel was soft and buttery and melted in my mouth. I had another piece and washed it down with tea. It was delicious. We sat back and listened to Charlie talk about the traditional ways that Maori fished for eels that he remembered from when he was a boy.
Where Charlie and his family went eeling, they had one of the biggest pa tuna around. Maori used to come from miles away and live in temporary settlements near the weir during the autumn migration. “There were other places to catch eels,” Charlie said, “but they used to come here because they’re the best eels you can get. Their backsides are closed up, their eyes are glazed over, they’re a fat, beautiful eel. You can just about eat ‘em like they are. And they’re passive. Lift a big eel up like that”—he demonstrated—“he’ll never say a word.”
Maori centered their whole lives on the eel run at that time of year, late January and February. They’d move their villages to the weir, “bring all their horses and pigs and all that,” Charlie said. There were always a few eels that went through the weir early, before the big run, and that’s what they ate while they were getting ready for the big event. In one night when the run happened, they could catch four tons of eel. “And they reckon the whole run was ten to twelve tons,” Charlie said. “This is on what we called Poukawa Lake Stream. The creek was only two meters wide, but when it flooded the eels were everywhere. You can’t stop ‘em, you just can’t stop ‘em.”
Charlie pushed the plate of smoked eel toward us to encourage us to eat more. I helped myself. “These are from Lake Poukawa. They’re better than Whakaki eels,” the ones from Walter Wilson’s lake. “It’s beautiful out there on Lake Poukawa. That’s our playground.”
Charlie explained that in the old days they didn’t have cloth or fiber netting. All the traps and pots for eeling were made from a woody creeping vine called supplejack. He remembers watching his parents and relatives making their own.
“My parents, they had a net from about here to the door, made of supplejack. You can twist it around and knot it, that supplejack, it’s not heavy. It grows up in the bush, and it grows fairly long. You know Maoris got a lot of spare time in those days. They sit in the sun, and they start making the hoops. They tie four supplejacks and they plait it. Them Maori, they got their way of making everything. They run out of supplies, they just go off in the bush and get some more.” He laughed.
Down at the swamp at Pekapeka, Charlie said, they had two big weirs that were repaired and rebuilt for the fall migration of eels. In preparation for the run the Maori would go upstream of the pa tuna and clean up the whole creek, because when the flood came they didn’t want sticks and things to lock up the net. When it rained and the river started to flood, they sent scouts up the creek from the weir. The scouts then signaled when the eels were coming.” ‘Oh, here they come!’ they’d say, and they’d get all excited.” Charlie laughed and laughed with his eyes closed as if he could picture the frenzy in his mind. “You can smell eels, you know, when you pass a river and they’re running.” He took a big black marker and drew the site and the weir as he remembered it. “They call the baskets or eel pots hinaki, made all of supplejack vine,” Charlie began, sketching on the newspaper in front of him, “and when the eels were coming they tied it on the mouth of the funnel-shaped leading nets, or tawiri, which were attached to the weir structure at the bottom of the V. They have to hold up the eels in the pa tuna until the full hinaki could be rolled away and replaced with an empty one. They have to work fast because within an hour, the whole run is gone.” Charlie paused to recite a whakatauki, or old Maori proverb: “Kia hiwa ra, kia hiwa ra, moe araara kit e matahi tuna,” which roughly translates as “Be watchful, be watchful, or you’ll sleep and miss the eels.”
“It’s a big flood, eh,” Charlie continued, “and the tawiri fills up quick. They empty the eels into the pits, big holes on the bank, oh, ten by ten feet, and, oh, eight feet deep—there’s eight of ‘em down there. Each pit holds one ton. Some of the pits are still there, but most of ‘em are filled in. You know, by the end everybody’s down there, the whole bank’s bloody loaded with Maoris from everywhere, then they have a big hangi, a big party. This was in the old days.”*
Charlie said they stopped fishing at Poukawa Lake Stream in the traditional way, with the old weirs and basket traps made of supplejack vine, in the early 1930s, when Charlie was a boy.
“We had twelve kids in my family. My mom used to have one big plate. And she’d serve up, boil the eel up, and mix it up with potato and puha [sow thistle]. She used to call it penupenu. There was a lot of oil in eel and the oil was pretty good for you. Everyone had a drink of warm milk to wash it down. That’s how she fed us in the early days, ‘cause we didn’t have no table and we had no plates,” he added with a laugh, “just the one. And none of the eel went to waste, even the backbone. You boil the bone until it’s soft, put onions in and a bit of stock, let it cool, a bit of bread and butter. That’s a meal.”
Charlie, eyes open, licked his lips. I imagined he was remembering his childhood home filled with the smells of his mother’s cooking.
In the town of Dannevirke, Stella took me to a suburban home. A large man named Robert Hape was sitting on the couch watching television. The small house was bubbling with clatter and movement, children running around the carpeted floor chasing cats and kittens. Talk turned to personal experiences that they or their acquaintances had had with taniwha eels.
“I had a friend,” Robert began, keeping his eyes fixed on the television, “who caught an eel with a red stripe down its back. He took it home in a bucket and during the night he heard it crying like a baby. He left it in the bucket, and the next morning he went outside and saw the eel on the ground dead. Just then, at that moment, the phone rang in the house. It was a call telling him his father had died.”
In the next room Robert’s son said: “Sometimes we been out there, some parts in the lake, really deep, and you look and there’s always one eel, and he’s poking around and he’ll come up to you and he’ll look at you like this.” He strained to bend his neck. “And I say, ‘Undo the net,’ and away that funny eel goes. And he knows, too. When you lift up the bag he goes straight through—see you later.”
Robert overheard us from the TV room and called to his wife, Molly, to tell us her taniwha story. We sat beside her at the kitchen table, the refrigerator humming. “In our hapu,” she said, “all the men went out one day to the mountains, leaving the women and the kids behind. The hapu had a pet eel and the men told the women and kids, ‘Feed the eel while we’re away, but make sure you cut off the heads of the fish first.’ Well, the boys in the tribe got smart, and they went ahead and fed the eel the fish heads. The eel got upset and left our hapu, and as it moved it carved a gorge through which the Manawatu River now runs.*It swam up to this place where there’s a mountain peak. When the men came back they tried to beg our taniwha to come back, but it wouldn’t. His feelings were hurt. Now whenever someone from our hapu goes near that peak, the peak forms a cloud over it, because the eel is weeping from humiliation. They still ask the taniwha if he would come back, but he won’t,” she said. “Hopefully one day it will.”
Near Waimarama, we visited Bill Akonga, a rangatira, one who carries the knowledge of the hapu. We sat down with him in his kitchen and listened while his wife put on a kettle for tea.
Bill talked of fishing as a kid with a piece of harakeke, native flax—a stringy-leafed plant. He explained how they would string the piece of flax with worms, no hook, and put it in the stream. When the eels grabbed hold of the worms their sandpaper-like teeth got snared by the flax and they could pull the eels in. He called it bobbing for eels.*
Mostly, though, Bill said, they speared eels. “There’s a special place in Havelock there called Wahaparata, a little stream that flows in to the Karamu Stream. We speared there at night. The old folks used to just put their hands in the water round the bottom of the spear when they hit an eel, just so they wouldn’t slide off. And sometimes the eel was bigger than their arms. They were huge things, the sort with the tusks and the dome head.”
“Tell them about the barking eels,” Bill’s wife said. “All eels bark, don’t they?”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Bill. “Do they?” He looked at Stella and pointed to her. “Here’s the expert.”
“Barking like dogs,” said Bill’s wife. “Just like dogs.”
“I’ve heard they can cry like a baby, too,” Stella said.
“Never heard one cry like a baby,” Bill said. “But I heard them bark. Oh yeah, quite loud, oh yes. It’s usually when there are a lot of them, though. I’ve never heard them bark when there’s only one or two. Usually it’s when they’re fighting for food that I’ve heard them bark. They come out of the water—well, their heads anyway.
“When we first moved here,” Bill continued, looking toward his wife, “I told her that eels bark, and she laughed at me. So we set a hinaki down the river, way down there. We went down there at night. Used to drive to it at that time. They were cutting trees, had a bridge put across the river. And we went down, way down to the paddock down there, and set the hinaki. We went back ten, eleven o’clock at night, we got there, it was pitch black. All of a sudden, we go over and I said, ‘Listen for the eel.’ That was the first time she’d ever heard them bark. And when we turned the lights on, whoa! There must have been hundreds of them. It looked like the water was just churning with eels. There was quite a lot of them barking. They were trying to get in the hinaki, but the hinaki was full. And they bark just like a dog. Eerie when it’s, you know, pitch black. No moon, no anything.”
Bill Akonga told us to go down the road to see an old friend of his. “Andrew Farmer used to smoke eels in his chimney. Hung ‘em in the top—fell in when they were done. He’ll spin a good yarn.”
We found Farmer, a thin, frail elderly man, in his home down the road. A small tabletop radio was set beside his arm.
“In the town of Clive,” he said, “they have an annual competition. Best-dressed eel. And the prize is a thousand dollars. You know, put little dresses on them, stand ‘em up. John Wooky’s son won one year, dressed it as a bush bug.” The radio chirped indiscernible sounds.
“We didn’t have a smoker,” Farmer continued, “so we smoked eels in the chimney.* All the fat drips down and the fire goes up. The old Maori used to use ash to get the slime off. Maryanne’s mother used to eat eel heads,” he said, nodding toward his wife across the table. “Boil up an eel head, eat it all except the skull. Those big eels, the domeheads, have a lot of meat on the head. Not just the head but the cheeks.” He played with the watch on his wrist.
Farmer’s wife perked up.
“We were children,” she said. “I was, oh, eight. And we were down the creek, and the creek went through this gully in the forest. And we heard a bark—it was loud, like a roar. Just like a dog. We went home and my mum told me it was an eel, a taniwha, warning us not to go down there. We never did again.”
My feet were propped up on the dashboard of the car, my pen moving across the page of my notebook. Stella and I had been on the road together for a week now.
“You spend more time writing in your notebook and reading than looking out the window,” Stella said. “You’re in New Zealand and you’d rather live in a book. I don’t think you’d experience things yourself if you didn’t have to.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “If that were the case, I would never have left home.”
“When you’re not reading a book, you’re trying to fit your life into a book.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s interesting.”
“Ka-klunk!” Stella said, smiling.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That’s the sound of a thought falling into your head.”
Stella and I made our way to Wellington, where we caught a plane to Dunedin. On the way I thought about what she’d said about my compulsion to define (what is a taniwha?) and record what I heard and saw—to fit my life into a book at the expense of missing the beauty of the moment. There was truth in this, but I was not blind to the fact that Stella was classifying me as well; I was a Westerner, a pakeha.
We were flying to the South Island essentially to visit one man. Kelly Davis, in his fifties, had devoted the latter part of his life to helping protect the longfin eel. He was the Maori man who had challenged Don Jellyman at a fisheries conference, asking how tracking eels to their spawning grounds was any help to the eel.
“Nobody should ever know,” he’d protested, “where these creatures reproduce.”
Kelly lived in a modest one-level farmhouse with his wife, Evelyn, and two foster children, a brother and sister named Tristan and Lovey. His lawn was a graveyard of fishing equipment—nets that needed mending, an aluminum boat on a trailer, buoys and tangles of ropes. Kittens and puppies and chickens ambled around the perimeter of the house and on the driveway, which sparkled with the opalescence of crushed abalone shells.
Kelly, of medium height and heavyset, greeted us at the door in a pair of old sweatpants, flip-flops, and a torn-up T-shirt. He spoke with a heavy Kiwi drawl and wiped his longish hair away from his warm, likable face.
He invited us to sit in his living room, and sank into the depression of an off-white couch. A kitten jumped up on the couch and walked across the back of it, nestling between a pillow and Kelly’s meaty shoulders. The TV was on. Kelly started right in.
“The longfin eel is my passion,” he began, “my obsession. I am a longfin.”
Kelly’s home stream is the Waihao, but he did most of his eel conservation work on the nearby Waitaki River, one of the largest rivers on the South Island. The Waitaki has eight hydroelectric dams along its length that collectively generate 20 percent of New Zealand’s electricity (75 percent of New Zealand’s electricity comes from hydropower, much higher than the world average, 15 percent, or the U.S. average, 10 percent). The country and the power company, Meridian Energy, proudly advertise clean, renewable electricity generation, but the dams required to make that electricity create anything but a renewable environment for the migratory eel. “In my mind there are two main forces causing the destruction of the longfin eel,” Kelly said, “hydrodams and commercial fishing.”
He went on, “I remember when I first came back from overseas in the navy in seventy-three.” A tattoo of a monkey on his hand and a mermaid on an anchor on his arm were relics of his days in the service. “When I returned home, our fishery was in dire straits. There wasn’t the same thing you saw when I was a child. I went away in 1963, so in ten years it went from a fishery where we were walking on eels, you know, where it was hard to take a step without feeling one with your feet, to where all that sort of thing is gone.”
The major change had taken place in 1958, when construction commenced on Benmore Dam, at the top of the Waitaki. It took seven years to complete what would become the largest earthen dam in New Zealand, 360 feet high and more than 2,600 feet long, creating the largest artificial lake in New Zealand and effectively cutting off any movement of eels to or from the upper river. Seven more major dams were built on the Waitaki, part of one of the largest hydroelectric power programs ever initiated in New Zealand or anywhere else. It effectively prevented any adult eels from returning to the sea and any juvenile eels from populating the river upstream of the dams.
Kelly says that when a female longfin eel is ready to migrate to the sea in autumn, she’ll circle the lake trying to find a way out, and if she can’t, “she’ll just keep circling the lake, until the urge goes away.” The eels, he says, will just keep living until they have the opportunity to get out. Or they will feel the pull of the water as it runs through the electricity-generating turbines in the dam and, taking the path of least resistance, will try to swim through the turbines and get chopped up or maimed.
The dams have turbines like giant window fans that spin horizontally as the water goes through, transforming the kinetic energy of falling water into electrical energy. The power companies don’t want the eels going through the turbines, as they can damage the equipment. Meridian Energy has tried all kinds of ways to keep eels away from turbines in dams on the Waitaki—screens, high-frequency sounds, lights—to no avail. The eels feel the pull through the penstock, the tube that funnels water to the turbine. The instinct to preserve energy for their long journey turns out to be deadly.
“We’ve found the big migrating eels just wait for a flood and roll downriver. They don’t even swim; why should they?”
Kelly hadn’t thought about the consequences of the dams until he came home from his service in the navy in the early 1970s and observed what was happening. “Once the hydrodams went in,” he said, “the eels had no chance of ever returning to the sea to spawn. They were landlocked.”
Simultaneously, a new and lucrative commercial fishery had emerged supplying eels to overseas markets in Taiwan, Japan, and Europe.
“I was up in Twizel to interview for a job,” Kelly said (the town of Twizel was originally built to house the dam workers),”and I saw guys commercially fishing on Lake Benmore there. And they were bringing up eels, without a word of a lie, that had heads on ‘em like a full-grown Labrador dog. And they were cutting their heads off and throwing them over the side. And I remember going up to the fishermen and saying, ‘You’re going to destroy this fishery if you continue doing that!’ And they said, ‘Oh, they’re too big, you just can’t sell ‘em.’ So they just killed them. Why? ‘Cause the big eels kept stealing the bait in their traps. And today we’re wearing that fact. If they hadn’t cut the heads off those eels and thrown them over the side, they’d still be in the lake today. Between dams and the commercial fishing, in thirty years the fishery had been decimated.”
The big eels in Lake Benmore that Kelly observed being slaughtered were on average between twenty-five and sixty years old. Some of them, Kelly pointed out, had no doubt migrated to the upper Waitaki River years before he was even born (and many years before the dams were built).
Kelly and some Maori cousins began grassroots efforts to trap the mature eels as they accumulated above the dams during the fall migration and transport them in tank trucks to the sea. This “trap-and-transfer” program was emulated on other rivers, wherever Maori took it upon themselves to help. “It may seem futile to just move a few hundred eels in a season,” Kelly said, “but you figure every big female that has a chance to get to the spawning grounds is carrying about thirty million eggs, so we know it makes a difference. That’s a fish that would otherwise never get out there.”*
Kelly was concerned that there weren’t enough eels returning to spawn. He imagined the route the eels took to the spawn- ing grounds as a trail marked by scent—that the adult eels left some trace of themselves behind that acted as signposts for the orphaned young to return to freshwater rivers.
“It’s my theory,” Kelly said, “that their pathway to where they migrate leaves that scent. And I’ve no other reason to believe it than stories that our old people talked about.”*
A ray of sun spread through the window and across the floor onto Kelly’s face. The kitten on his shoulder momentarily opened its eyes, stretched and squinted in the sunlight, then curled up and went back to sleep.
“People don’t understand what value the eels are for us Maori,” Kelly said. “The old people knew when the eels ran that it was time to prepare for the cold months—they were like a seasonal indicator, a calendar.
“We went seasonally to fish the longfins during what we call the hinapouri [darkness, or new moon], when the eels gather to migrate. We would only fish for sustenance, not to trade or anything. It was the time I liked most as a kid ‘cause we had the week off school to fish eels. We fished channels in the shingle at the end of the Waihao in the Wainono Lagoon. The eels were gathered waiting for a storm so they could roll over the shingle bar.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen ‘em try to migrate,” Kelly continued. “It’s the most amazing sight. I’ve seen ‘em roll up in a big ball and just roll straight over, over the beach. They go way up the river and then they swim furiously down the river, and they just roll, like a big ball, rolling over. And that’s usually round about the end of April when that happens. At night you can go down there and you can see the eels, trying to work their way through the shingle.*
“The right size eels, about three or four feet, we took home [the big females were carried over the shingle bar and released in the sea]. We had a process we called pawhara where we open the eel along the back and clean it and hang it by pieces of flax on a wooden drying rack. Each family had a quota. Down here, for our family of six, we took two bags full, and they were huge bags—and that was enough to keep you fed for winter.
“Different people have a different affinity for eels. I mean, for us Maori, it’s the highest-protein food that we can ever have in this country. A lot of things have taken over since I was a kid in terms of food, but it’s still a major diet if we can get them. I take the opportunity now and again to get a feed, whereas when I was a child, we had eel at least three, four times a week, two to three times a day. I used to take the dry eel to school for lunch—it’s like jerky, you know, you rip it off and eat it. It was something that sustained us, really. When money was scarce, we lived off the river and the sea; we had no other option. And we grew vegetables and stuff like that. I’ve been trying to tell our young people, this stuff is great for you!”*
Kelly continued to share his mountains of experiential knowledge. “The glass eels used to come in so thick they looked like an oil slick on top of the water. They come into the river year after year and hide in the stones and the watercress.” When the young eels decide it’s time to go upstream, after waiting in the lower river for as long as ten years, they go all at once, if necessary forming braids with their bodies to surmount vertical walls. “If one goes up the wall, they all want to go up. They’re amazing.” Kelly described diving in the rivers with big eels, watching them suck the meat out of freshwater mussels. He told stories of going out on rainy nights in farm paddocks with a ferret on a leash, hunting eels traveling overland from one body of water to another. Kelly told tale after tale of the physical challenges the eel faced and of the importance of the eel for the Maori as a source of sustenance. And then he shared a more personal strain of the story: the interweaving of the eel’s fate with the Maoris’ own.
In the 1860s the British settlers in New Zealand established a kind of department of wildlife they called the Acclimatization Society, meant to help British immigrants acclimatize to life in the new colony.* This was accomplished through the introduction of familiar species, including red deer, pheasants, quail, ferrets, rabbits, possums, foxes, swans, ducks, and geese. From the sportsman’s point of view, one of the more successful of these introductions was the brown trout, which arrived as a British import (via Tasmania) in the 1860s.
The streams and lakes of New Zealand, cold, clear, and rich with aquatic insect life, were more than suitable for trout. The speckled fish rapidly established themselves in the streams, rivers, and lakes, reproducing naturally and growing rapidly up to weights of five to ten pounds, a trophy trout for any angler. Within decades of the initial introduction, New Zealand was renowned worldwide for some of the best trout fishing in the world.
But there was a strange predator in the water that British anglers were unaccustomed to seeing. Occasionally while a trout was on the line, a shadowy form would emerge from the depths and devour it. A four-to-five-pound trout was no match for a five-to-six-foot-long eel. Once the British settlers identified the giant eels as a threat to their prized gamefish, members of the Acclimatization Society set out to eradicate them. The society pinned up “wanted” posters in bait shops, offering a bounty of twopence for each tail clipping that verified an eel kill. Huge longfins were caught and left on dry riverbanks to die. Instructions to kill eels appeared on the back of all New Zealand fishing licenses, like this one from 1950:
Make War on Eels
Excepting erosion and flood scour, eels are the greatest enemy of trout in our rivers.
Eels are also competitive with trout for feed; when they are not eating trout they are depleting trout food.
Therefore, every angler should KILL EELS every day he is on the water. Always carry in your fishing bag a shark hook, attached to about 3 yards of stout line. Bind the hook to the end of any stick and carry the line up the stick to your hand. Jag the eel, discard the stick, and pull the eel ashore and destroy it!
“The Acclimatization Society took as many big longfins out of the river as they could,” Kelly said. “My dad and me, we used to go behind the men and kick them big eels back into the water. This was in the mid-, late fifties. It wasn’t until they found a market for them overseas that they stopped killing them willy-nilly.
“The slaughter of eels by the society,” Kelly said, “was akin to what the Europeans did to the buffalo in North America. Like the Great Plains Indians relied on the buffalo, Maori relied on the eels for sustenance and for our faith. I’m not sure the Acclimatization Society didn’t know what they were doing.”
Kelly’s wife, Evelyn, brought a tray of tea and biscuits into the living room. Stella and I had been glued to our chairs—hours had gone by as we just listened—and Kelly still sat deep in the couch with the kitten warming the back of his head. He stopped speaking briefly to take his tea on the couch. He showed us an amulet that Evelyn had carved for him out of pounamu, or greenstone, in the shape of an eel. He put it on the tea tray and continued.
“There’s more at stake than just losing the fish,” Kelly said. “It’s our way of life. We have to preserve that sense of wonder in our children, have them see one of these giant creatures. I’ll stop and show children, pick a big mother eel up in my hands and let them touch it. We had some big ones in a catch basin that we caught in Lake Benmore, ready to take them down to the sea. And this car went past and stopped. I pulled this huge eel out of the bag, a big migrant female with big blue eyes, and held it in my arms. And these little kids started climbing out of the car window to have a pet at the thing. They couldn’t believe it was so docile. And it was twenty-six pounds, just a huge eel, massive! And I told them the story, that the longfin eel is endemic to New Zealand, that they only live in the waters of this country, and I told them what we were doing and why we were doing it, that we were taking these big eels to the sea—it was an experience they never had.”
Stella got up to get more sugar for Kelly’s tea. “What’s the biggest eel you’ve seen in your life?” she asked.
“I was up and above where the flows are upstream,” Kelly said, stirring his cup of tea with a small spoon. “There’re some huge eels up there. I mean, I’m talking probably twenty-, thirty-kilo longfins. I’ll tell you, without a word of a lie, there’s one up there, one night we were just spotlighting off the bridge—it was huge. Out of the corner of my eye was this eel coming, this thing like a powerboat, going upstream, so we shined the light on, and she just turned around, flicked her tail, and went in under the watercress. It would have been from here to that table, a good three meters long and bigger around than my thigh. And that’s no rubbish. There were a number of us saw it. The amazing thing about it was that the girth continued right up through to the end of the tail, like a barracuda.”
Stella asked Kelly what was the oldest eel he’d ever heard of.
“I’ve personally aged eels, specimens that died in the dams or the trap-and-transfer program, at over a hundred years.* The oldest eel documented was a hundred and six years, a speci- men from Lake Rotoiti in the South Island. It wasn’t even that big, only seven and a half kilograms. They say the eels in that lake mature at ninety-six years old!”* Kelly said, marveling. “They’re just fascinating.” Before Kelly had personally aged such ancient eels, he says, scientists such as Jellyman doubted customary knowledge of eels living that long.
“I mean, if they talked to us before they did a lot of things, if they talked to our people, my father and my family that lived on this river for sixteen generations … if they’d have talked to my father and sat down and listened to the stories he had to tell—they would have learned something.
“Our local knowledge is useful to scientists, but they just take what they want and toss the rest. I taught my girl where to get the wood pigeons in season, where the miro berries grow and ripen. I was out pig hunting one day and got a pig, and on the way back I stopped just after first light at a patch of miro berries I knew. The pigeons, we call kereru, come in and gorge themselves.”
Kelly described the scene in the berry patch, where the pigeons eat so much that when they try to fly they sometimes crash-land and die. “Their crops just explode, and they can be collected on the forest floor,” Kelly said. “I stuffed thirty birds in the belly of the pig and made my way out of the bush. On the way back, I ran into a guy from the Department of Conservation and he saw me with the pig and saw a pigeon sticking out of the pig’s mouth. He wanted to pinch me because the pigeons are protected. I said, ‘I’m allowed to do this, it’s my customary right,’ and I said, ‘Besides, I didn’t kill them; I just picked them up off the ground. They killed themselves.’ He didn’t believe me. He said, ‘We need to know where this place is,’ so I took the guy and showed him the pigeons, dead all over the ground. He was amazed. I said to him, ‘That’s why they taste so lovely this time of year, they’re so fat with berries.’ ”
And still, not knowing certain things had always been of equal importance to the Maori as knowing—for instance, where the longfin eel goes to spawn.
“Look, mate,” he said, “I prefer that they leave them alone. That’s my feeling. I mean, they’re very interested in finding out where this house is where they breed. Why? To benefit the commercial interests?”
Because New Zealand eels are some of the largest in the world, they can accommodate a sizeable tracking device, and therefore offer the best opportunity to track eels to the spawning grounds given the existing technology. Don Jellyman placed a tag onto each of ten large female eels (using a nylon bridle to hold them into place) and released them into the sea near Lake Ellesmere on the Canterbury coast of the South Island.*
“Jellyman’s work didn’t come to anything,” Kelly said, pleased. “After all that money”—each tag cost $4,500—“the tags and the eels went missing. That money could have been used for trap-and-transfer, to help the eels around dams. How much more do you want to study them? The research that they’ve done hasn’t been beneficial to the eel, that’s my view.”
After hours of talking, and some tea and biscuits put away, Kelly drove us to his local marae, the Maori tribal meeting place.
“When you come back,” Kelly said, “you stay here. You just come and be my shadow and I’ll show you things you’ve never seen.” He was standing on the steps of the marae in a heavy wet drizzle. We walked around the back of the marae and he showed us a waka, or sea canoe, he built with the local children, made entirely out of bundled reed grass. When I asked if it was seaworthy, he said, “You bet.” He told Stella and me the story of how the South Island was actually the waka that the first New Zealanders had taken to this area. The canoe beached on the South Pole, they say, on the shoals of Antarctica. Then Maui, the leader of the expedition, fishing from the beached waka, pulled up a giant stingray, and that became the North Island. And if you look on a map of New Zealand, the South Island does resemble a canoe, and the North Island does look like a stingray. Kelly told the story not as if it were myth, but as it was to him—the beginning of his genealogy as a Maori. The rain fell harder and we got back in the car.
* Useful data on depth distribution and swimming direction were obtained, though.
* In Maori,”wh” is always pronounced”f.”
** In the Reed Dictionary of Modern Maori, the translation of taniwha is “water monster, powerful person, ogre.”
* The modern word taboo, used in English, is a bastardization of the Pacific Island word tapu.
* With the exception perhaps of the tropical eel, Anguilla marmorata.
** The endemic longfin, Anguilla dieffenbachii, and smaller native shortfin eel, Anguilla australis, which is also found in Australia, are by far the largest of New Zealand’s twenty-five native freshwater species of fish. Of the two eels, the long- fin is longer-lived, and can be distinguished from the shortfin by a dorsal fin that starts closer to the head.
* The shortfin eel does not go up rivers as far as the longfin, spending its life in estuaries and lowland lakes and rivers.
* An eel can rotate fourteen times per second.
* The white meat of the coconut is sometimes called te-roro-o-tuna, “the brains of Tuna.” In some versions of the story, Sina, also called Ina, falls in love with the eel, named Tuna, who can take the form of a handsome man. One night there is a big flood and Tuna, in eel form, offers his sacrifice in order to stop the flood.
In his book The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell juxtaposes the Pacific island story involving the eel, the woman, and the food tree, with the biblical story of Eve, the snake-seducer, and the fruit in the Garden of Eden:
“Paradoxically, then, it would appear that although we are moving eastward into the Pacific we are also coming closer to the biblical version of the mythological event through which death came into the world; and something rather startling is beginning to appear, furthermore, concerning the relationship of Mother Eve to the serpent, and of the serpent to the food tree in the Garden. The voluptuous atmosphere of the lush Polynesian adventure will be different, indeed, from the grim holiness of the rabbinical Torah; nevertheless, we are certainly in the same old book-of which, so to say, all the earliest editions have been lost.”
* Joseph Campbell writes in his 1976 book The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology:”In the long view of the history of mankind … essential functions of mythology can be discerned. The first and most distinctive—vitalizing all—is that of eliciting and supporting a sense of awe before the mystery of being. Professor Rudolf Otto has termed this recognition of the numinous the characteristic mental state of all religions properly so called. It antecedes and defies definition. It is, on the primitive level, demonic dread; on the highest, mystical rapture; and between there are many grades. Defined, it may be talked about and taught; but talk and teaching cannot produce it. Nor can authority enforce it. Only the accident of experience and the sign symbols of a living myth can elicit and support it.”
* To be fair, the early Polynesians were also responsible for introducing nonnative species. They brought their own creature comforts with them to New Zealand: the dog in particular and (whether intentionally or not) the kiore, or Polynesian rat. The eighteenth century saw the introduction of the pig by Captain Cook, leading to the local name for wild pigs, Captain-Cookers.
* Stella later explained that part of the reason she pursued science was to“provide that proof for her people.”
* The fishery in the lagoon at Whakaki, though unique, is not entirely unlike eel fisheries in other parts of the world where similar conditions exist—where lagoons or lakes with eels are very close to the sea. Comacchio, Italy, in the delta of the Po River near Venice, is a famous example. Lake Forsyth, or Waiwerea, in the South Island of New Zealand is separated from the sea by a gravel bar, shaped by tides and storms, that varies in depth and thickness. The Maori figured out long ago that if they dig channels in the gravel bar from the lake heading toward the ocean, but not entirely through the bar, then during the fall migration the eels will be tricked into thinking there is a way out, and they will swim into the channels, where they are gaffed.
* Also called a pa tuna, a pa is usually V-shaped, just like the weir Ray Turner used to catch eels in the Catskills, except instead of it being primarily built of stone, these weirs were built of wood and vines. And like Ray’s weir, they were used for catching fish on a downstream migration. At the vortex of the V was a trap, usually a woven basket. Some weirs were shaped like W’s with two vortices and two traps where the eels collected.
* The following is written in a display on eel fishing in the Auckland National Museum: “In autumn, the dawn appearance of Matariki (Pleiades) in the east not only heralds the start of the Maori new year but is also the time to get ready the hinaki (traps) for harvesting adult tuna (eels).
“Their migration downstream is foretold in the stars as Te awa o te Tuna (the river of eels) in the sky reveals itself. Te awa patahi is the start of the river. As eels move downstream they sometimes twist themselves into a tangled mass. This whiri (knot) can be seen in the cluster of stars in Te Tuna Whiri (the knot of eels).Then they move on past the eel weir te Pa-tuna to the hinaki (eel trap). Its mouth Te waha o te hinaki is formed by a group of stars in Te Koko (Corvus, a star), and the bottom end by Pekehawani (Spica, a star). The latter imparts energy to the eels enabling them to continue downstream whilst the ritual of mating commences, when the females select the males (Te kawao o te tairaka).”
* This refers to Manawatu Gorge, which goes from the east side of the North Island near Norsewood, across the mountain range to the west at Palmerston North, and then to Foxton.
* They have a similar method for catching eels in England and other parts of Europe, with worms on a string and no hook.
* A parallel description of smoking eels in the chimney can be found in Thomas Howard’s book The Jonnycake Papers, about early nineteenth-century life in New England: “They [the eels] were then washed in clean sea water and hung up in the kitchen chimney, with its wide, open fireplace, for one night only. Next morning, the eels were cut in short pieces and placed in a gridiron, flesh side next to sweet- smelling, glowing coals, made from green oak, walnut, or maple wood.”
* Bill Kerrison, a Maori man we visited later in the trip, has spearheaded a similar trap-and-transfer program on the Rangitikei River (North Island) -not only to help adult eels get past three major dams on their downstream migrations to the sea, but also to help the young eels get up above those same dams. He moves more than a million young eels upstream of Matahina Dam (the largest earthen dam on the North Island) every year.
* Eels have one of the most powerful senses of smell of any creature. According to the German ichthyologist Friedrich Tesch, author of the most comprehensive scientific book on freshwater eels, Der Aal: “The eel is almost as sensitive to smell as the dog, which is not surpassed by any other animal.” Tesch wrote that eels can perceive the smell of roses diluted to the degree of “one ml of scent in a body of water 58 times that of Lake Constance.” (Lake Constance in Europe is 39 miles long and 830 feet deep.)
* Though I had never seen balls of eels, I had heard many stories about them. A commercial fisherman named Roger on the Seine near Rouen, France, told me that he once caught a ball of eels in his nets. The ball was so tight that he couldn’t pull the eels apart with his hands, so he and his friend loaded the whole ball into the back of his car. When they got to Roger’s house the ball of eels was still tightly woven, and he had to use a hatchet to break them apart. A 1966 paper by J. C. Medcof in the Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada, titled “Incidental Records of Behaviour of Eels in Lake Ainslie, Nova Scotia,” has several accounts of eel balls, this among them: “Frequently the migrating eels knot themselves together, and large bundles, often a fathom in circumference, are seen lying in the lakes or trundling down the streams.” Bill Kerrison told Stella and me about balls of eels he’d seen as a boy in the North Island-tight, compact, and almost perfectly spherical.”I was standing on the riverbank with my grandmother, and we saw this ball of eels go by, and I asked her, ‘Why do they do that?’ She said, ‘Because they’re in love.’ The Maori felt that eels formed balls as part of their courtship.”
* Indeed, a recent study published in the New Zealand Herald showed that Maori who consumed eel meat almost daily had fewer health problems. High in omega-3 fatty acids, eel is especially good at preventing type 2 diabetes (the form linked to obesity). The study showed that Maori who ate eel several times a week had virtually no cases of type 2 diabetes, which was otherwise epidemic among modern Maori.
* The Acclimatization Society was not unique to New Zealand, but existed in other colonies of the Crown, including Australia.
* The only reliable way to age an eel is by counting the rings of a cross-section of the otolith-a small stone-like sensory organ in the inner ear-and the fish must be dead to obtain it.
* Two years later I visited Don Jellyman in Christchurch on the South Island. He confirmed what Kelly said; at least, the numbers were close. Don said the mean age of the female eels leaving Lake Rotoiti to spawn is ninety-three years.
* The tags could be timed to release from the eel and, being buoyant, come to the surface and transmit data of the fish’s whereabouts and daily activities via satellite to a computer. Don’s first effort to tag eels, in 2001, did not yield a great deal of information about where the longfins went to spawn. Perhaps the most intriguing bit of data retrieved from one of the eels was its pattern of traveling in an undulating formation, swimming near the surface at night and diving to nearly three thousand feet during the day. Don later told me that the reason for this behavior could be to evade predators or delay sexual maturation in the cold depths until the eels get to the spawning place. Similar travel patterns were observed in results from a 2006-07 study tracking European eels from the west coast of Ireland to the Sargasso Sea.