The following excerpt comes from Michael’s recently published Late Light, ‘a book about falling in love with vanishing things.’ As an Indonesian Australian arriving in south-west England to study, Michael dives below the surface of this unfamiliar land through a series of encounters with four of its ‘unloved’ animals – eels, moths, crickets and freshwater mussels – each of which, he discovers, is threatened with disappearance. Finding parallels with his own experience in their stories of migration and belonging, he travels from Somerset to Scotland to try to understand their lives, and to learn what can be done to help save them from extinction.
This passage from the ‘Mussel’ chapter takes place after Michael’s visit to a freshwater mussel colony in the Highlands with Iain Sime from Scottish Natural Heritage.
Before we had parted ways in Inverness, Iain had taken me to a small library in his office and reached for a book called The Summer Walkers. ‘Read this,’ he said, pressing the book into my hands, and for the rest of the afternoon, while he carried on with his work, I found myself in a different world. Written by Timothy Neat, the book offers a remarkable account of an old way of life – one it records without any hint of romanticism or nostalgia – and more than any other, it was this book that showed me the depth of the historical relationship between mussels and humans.
In 1996, Neat began interviewing members of Scotland’s travelling community. At the time, fewer than five thousand were ‘living a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle,’ he writes, with fewer still ‘living the old migratory lifestyle in bow-tents’ – ‘probably less than fifty’. The aim of The Summer Walkers, he explains, was to ‘document aspects of that life’ while they are ‘still fresh in the minds of individuals who spent extended periods of their lives on the road’.
Among the travellers Neat interviewed for his book were Eddie Davies and Essie Stewart, both pearl-fishers. Over a period of months, they told Neat many stories, recounting their many years of travelling the roads, camping beneath the stars, and fishing for pearls in dozens of Highland rivers. These interviews introduced me to a world I knew nothing about: the rich traditions of the travellers, their songs, customs and folktales, as well as the various occupations of different families, from hawking and horse-dealing to tin-smithing and pearl-fishing. But it also reaffirmed something I had learned in relation to eels and moths, but which was powerfully confirmed for me again: that the disappearance of a species is always a plural event, because it involves the unravelling of an interconnected world: otters and bitterns are affected by the loss of eels, just as birds and bats suffer due to the loss of moths. In the case of mussels, that unravelling also extends to humans, or at least to the lives of the traditional pearl-fishers. And while this is not the primary reason we should care about extinction – since other animals have a value quite apart from their benefit to humans – the experience of the pearl-fishers might help us appreciate a basic truth: that the loss of one species is always a loss for others.
The disappearance of a species is always a plural event, because it involves the unravelling of an interconnected world
The son and grandson of pearl-fishers, Eddie Davies began working on rivers in the 1930s when he was five years old. He started fishing alongside his father, who also began his working life at a tender age, and would continue fishing until his back, twisted by more than sixty years of pearl-fishing, gave out in his early seventies. By the time he and Neat met, Eddie was living in Sutherland with his daughter Sandra, living on monthly disability cheques.
The woman whom Eddie would marry in 1969, Essie Stewart, was also brought up in a travelling family. Abandoned at birth in 1941, Essie was adopted and raised by Mary Stewart, a member of the famous Stewart clan from Lairg, Sutherland. Mary’s adoptive father was Ailidh Dall, reputed to be one of Scotland’s greatest storytellers, and it was from him that Essie learned, in Gaelic, the great stories and songs of the travelling community, some of which were recorded in the 1950s by the folklorist Hamish Henderson. The Stewarts spent much of their time on the road, Essie recalls, travelling to Western Ross-shire in the spring before returning to Remarstaig, just outside Lairg, in the winters. And each year, when spring came back, they would venture out again along the same paths. From Lairg, Essie told Neat, ‘our roads spread to all over the north’.
The pearl-fishers are sometimes seen in a nostalgic light, idealised as figures who maintained contact with the rhythms of the natural world when modernity was bringing most of us further indoors. As Neat makes clear in his book, however, the going could be very tough for people like Eddie and Essie. After their marriage, when Essie was seventeen and Eddie was twenty-nine, the couple spent decades searching for mussels in the rivers in Ross-shire, Sutherland and Caithness, living off the proceeds of the pearls they sold to local jewellers. And although there were many joyous occasions – those mornings or afternoons when a clutch of pearls was found along a stretch of river – there was also the difficulty of the work, what Eddie describes as ‘the ache, the cold, the wet [and] the peeling feet’ brought on by long days on the river. And, whenever the pearls were scarce, the couple had to make do with seasonal work on farms, where they were employed to dig ditches, harvest potatoes, grub out hedges, and whatever else was required of them. Eventually, the work would damage them both – ‘Eddie’s back went and so did mine,’ Essie told Neat – and it is also possible that the strain of persistent manual labour, alongside the financial insecurity of life on the road, had a bearing on their relationship. In the mid-1980s, after being married for twenty-five years, the two parted ways for good.
During their time together, Eddie and Essie must have accumulated a knowledge of mussels and rivers unequalled in modern Scotland. And it was a knowledge that would have connected them to an ancient line of pearl-fishers stretching back to the time of the Venerable Bede, if not further. In his interview with Neat, for example, Eddie speaks of the different-coloured pearls he had encountered during his lifetime, from the grey pearls of the Spey, some of which carry a ‘bluish tinge’, to the ‘rose-pink’ or ‘salmon pink’ pearls of the Oykel, a river which also produces pearls that resemble the ‘soft blue sheen of the ling’ as well as the ‘soft red glow of the bell-heather’. There were also the green, purple, and grey pearls of the River Conon, the ‘satin-white’ and ‘silver-grey’ pearls of the Laxford, and the milk chocolate and dark chocolate browns of other rivers in Sutherland and Caithness. And not only did the pearls have their ‘different sheens’, Eddie explained, they also had their distinctive forms. There were button-shaped and egg-shaped pearls, pearls that were sculpted like barrels, as well as pearls that looked like buttons or that were perfectly round. And of all the pearls one could find, the round ones were most valued by the fishers, especially those that obtained a ‘noble, pastel’ lustre, since it was these that fetched the highest prices. Such pearls, Eddie told Neat, were the kind ‘that make a life worth living’.
A clear ethic of respect animates Eddie’s account of fishing. In his remarks to Neat, he explains how traditional pearl-fishers would leave whole colonies untouched, to ensure they did not overharvest from any one river. By contrast, the fishermen who started ‘coming up in droves’ after Bill Abernathy’s famous discovery would ‘work the river like a factory’. ‘They slaughtered the Tay’, and when they came up to the Spey, ‘they slaughtered it’ as well. ‘It was greed,’ Eddie continued, since it violated one of the core principles of the traditional pearl-fishers. ‘We would know which shells to open,’ he said, explaining how one could tell apart a ‘crook’ (a slightly deformed mussel which was more likely to contain a pearl) from a non-crook. But the newcomers ‘would open every shell – wee shells, smooth shells – and that was that! They wiped the rivers clean.’
From Eddie’s perspective, the catastrophic decline of mussels has its origins here, in the appearance of the new pearl-fishers. In truth, a slower kind of devastation had already been taking place. In the 1960s, many of Britain’s waterways were in a state of poor health, damaged by decades of pollution, intensive farming and upland deforestation. And the problems would only worsen in succeeding decades, as more of the country’s rivers came under strain. The new fishers may have destroyed countless colonies during the frenzy that followed the discovery of Abernathy’s pearl, and yet they did not so much initiate a process of decline as accelerate it. All this was also happening at a time when Scotland’s travelling community, or the ‘Ceardannan’, as they were once known in Gaelic, was beginning to vanish. In this way, two disappearances took place side by side: the loss of freshwater pearl mussels and the loss of the fishers who knew them best – a double extinction that marked the unravelling of a river-culture which had evolved over many centuries.
Two disappearances took place side by side: the loss of freshwater pearl mussels and the loss of the fishers who knew them best
In one of his interviews, Eddie speaks of the ‘subtle shades’ that can be found in the pearls of Scotland’s rivers – shades that are absent from the pearls of the ‘sea oyster that supplies the big international market’. And as I read The Summer Walkers, it was this remark of Eddie’s, among many others, that made me appreciate what is involved in extinction: not only the loss of a species, but the loss of a shared world. The pearls from cultivated oysters may be more conventionally beautiful than those found in wild mussels. At the same time, they lacked what an experienced eye could see – that special sheen of a river-thrown pearl – a sheen that not only captured Eddie’s attention, but which seems to have penetrated deep into his being, and indeed to have formed him in some way. When an animal vanishes, however, it not only takes its own particularities with it (the gift of its otherness), but also the space that emerges when two distinct forms of life meet. That space is nothing less than a shared world – in this case, the world of pearl-fishers and mussels – but sitting alongside it are the other distinctive worlds that arise through the process of encounter. Salmon have a particular relationship with mussels that is unique to them, which is different from the relationship between mussels and insects, which is different again from the world that forms between mussels and plants. We experience reality through each other, and because of each other, and the richness of life is also here, in that space of meeting and transformation. One of the consequences of extinction, however, is that there are fewer ways of being alive with others, fewer ways of sharing existence. The loss of one is therefore always a plural event, since it strikes at the interconnected whole of which it was once a part.
Late Light (Manilla Press, 2023) is a book about migration, belonging and extinction. Through the close examination of four particular ‘unloved’ animals – eels, moths, crickets and mussels – Michael Malay tells the story of the economic, political and cultural events that have shaped the modern landscape of Britain.