Eight-hundred years ago, you could have paid your rent in eels. In fact, for centuries it was relatively common practice across the UK. While eel pie may not be anyone’s favourite dish anymore, the watery dwellers have historically been prepared in a number of ways – including pickled – a solid investment in self preservation. For monks they were especially valuable, what with eels not being classified as flesh, making them clear for consumption on meat-free holidays like Lent. Traded in measurements of “sticks” (or about 25 eels), they functioned as a form of currency that varied in value as a result of inflation and who was receiving them, but to put it in context, Professor John Wyatt Greenlee calculated that in 2018, a year of undergraduate tuition at Cornell University would run you between 106,612 – 213,024 eels.
Of course, eels are important to us today for many other reasons, as touched upon by Louis Masai’s new commission for the Peabody-backed Thamesmead mural project. The work features a massive, patchwork river eel, comprised of batik-inspired, locally minded patterns that reflect the community and Masai’s larger ecological concerns. “Eels are like the canary of the river,” Masai says. “If you lose your eel population, it either indicates there was already a problem, or you’ve created a problem.” The rainbow river dweller’s aptly placed alongside the canal, as Thamesmead is currently undertaking repopulation efforts for the area’s eels. An essential part of England’s biodiversity, they are partially responsible for the flourishing wildlife in Southeastern London. It’s one of the many creatures whose presence – or lack there of – Masai’s work asks us to be mindful of.
Of the many patches on the mural, one is made up entirely of little yellow bananas. “Bananas are on the verge of extinction for the second time in the last 100 years,” Masai says. “It’s a popular, recognizable image thanks to Andy Warhol, but the bananas our grandparents were eating are not the ones we do – they don’t exist anymore. That’s how close extinction is to us.” It’s a sobering thought, that these changes are happening right before our eyes and we still manage not to see them. It’s why Masai spends so much time researching animals and regions, and what enables him to stumble upon old school practices like paying taxes in eels. While to us eels might not carry the same weight as a much welcome housing subsidy, we could stand to reconsider the worth and value of our neighborhood’s natural inhabitants – and who knows, maybe we’re only a good Google away from an unexpected, outdated tax break.