How long have eels been doing this? They were doing it, repeating this old, epic story, long before Aristotle put it all down to mud. They were doing it when Pliny posited his rock-rubbing theory. And Linnaeus his viviparity theory. They were doing it when they stormed the Bastille and when Napleon and Hitler contemplated the invasion of England. And they were still doing it, still accomplishing these vast atavistic circles when on a July day in 1940 Freddie Parr picked up out of a trap one of their number (which later escaped and lived perhaps to obey the call of the far Sargasso) and plaed it in Mary Metcalf's navy blue knickers.
In this passage, Swift emphasizes his notion of Natural History. The mating ritual of eels is one of the ancient mysteries of the natural world. It has endured for centuries undisturbed, despite the great changes in the history of man. Empires rise and fall. Events occur which shape Crick's adolescence. Yet the mating of the eels continues.
The migration of the eels in Waterland is comparable to the flowing of the Ouse. Though man continually drains the Fens, the waters always manage to reclaim the lands during floods. Man's history appears insignificant when compared to this powerful force of nature. However, the fear and chaos felt by Price emerges from the reality that in the nuclear age, destroying this nature could become part of man's history.