The salmon return

This article first appeared in the Island Word in fall, 2007.  It is one of our favorites. 

Our Morrison creek is alive with salmon—Coho since the beginning of September, with Pinks and Chum to follow. By Christmas it will stink to high heaven, but we won’t mind. Well, not much anyway. When the salmon come, we feel blessed beyond blessed.

The first year that we lived on the creek was a pretty good year for pinks. We lay awake at night, listening to the “splash, splash” of struggle and spawning; the sounds of life returning to the source and starting again.

That year, Serena vowed to live on the creek long enough to lose her fear of dying. This is how the salmon end their individual lives—face first into the current, fighting to go further inland, just a little bit further, a and further back to the place that they began. Having fishy sex. Leaving their bodies behind for the next year’s fry. How do they find their way home? Is it something that they smell? Is it the way the water feels?

The salmon remind Monika of the circles that connect us all to the earth. Without the salmon, there would be no forest—salmon provide important nutrients to the soil as it is dragged to rot beside, or miles away from, the stream. Nowadays we think of trees and plants as the main compost for the forest floor. But before there were trees, there had to be water creatures to prepare the ground. Salmon continue to carry an annual supply of nutrients from the ocean-source to the land. Our rivers and streams are like arteries and capillaries that allow the salmon, like red blood cells, access to the rest of the body that lies above the sea. Without the salmon, would we exist? Possibly not.

Monika is moved by the pain of the salmon as they leave their bodies to the creek bed and the forest floor. Serena holds fast to her theory that they die in ecstatic reunion, giving themselves over to the joy and the completion of coming home. But we share in gratitude as we look over the fence and through the thicket that shades the shallow water where they swim, splash, spawn and suffer (or not) the completion of their lives.

Each August and September we listen with hope and dread—“will they come? How many? How many years will they come up Morrison Creek, before they disappear from too few hiding places, too much direct sun, and too much pollution in the water?” Urban salmon run a gauntlet of drainage pipes, lawn chemicals, disturbed soil, direct sunlight , dogs and curious human children with sticks and stones. And before they get here there are nets, lice, oil spills, plastics, and hungry seals. Some years very few arrive behind our house.

For over ten thousand years, people on this coast waited for the salmon with the same faith that they felt waiting for the sunrise—of course they would come. The night may be long, the year might be hungry, and it was natural for children to wonder whether the cycles of life might stop. But adults knew differently. “Trust, little one,” they might have said, “It’s a promise—they always come. That’s how we go on.”

To now question whether the salmon will come ought to be as unthinkable as wondering whether the sun would rise. The planet is alive because all of these systems work: the forests that cleanse and renew the air, the rivers that collect the water and run it back to the ocean, the salmon that come upstream to feed the forests as the ocean returns its bounty, the birds and the bears that carry the nutrients inland, the clouds and the rain that lift, then shower waters on the land. A major break in this chain needs to shock us.

Monika has signed us up to sample forage fish for Project Watershed. Serena is coming along with reluctance; she would rather stay warm and dry on the weekends. Last year we scrapped two cars for oil leaks, leaving us with one subcompact car (aka “the pod”) and an electric bicycle (aka the “Putt-putt-No-putt”) to meet the transportation needs of a family of 4, six if you count the dogs. (T. says pointedly, “you can’t take the mutt-mutts on the Putt-putt”) We plant dense native shrubs along the creek side. We are doing what we can, and we know it is hardly enough. Just by being North American humans, reasonably attached to our society and its “grid”, we are part of the problem. Our individual remedies are stop-gap measures; trivial in the grand scheme of things.

What is needed is a deep, cultural change. Behavior change is hard to sustain and to share if it is driven by negative emotions—fear, guilt, shame of being a polluter. Even duty to the collective can’t keep us behaving well as environmental managers. We need positive reasons, as individuals, to be careful of our neighbors in this ecosystem. We need to feel love, wonder, and curiousity about the world around us. We need to reawaken to just how amazing all of this is.

Can wide-eyed, open-hearted wonder help save an ecosystem that is in peril? Does prayer, or meditation, or communion by any name with the great circles of life matter? We have to believe that it does, and so we do. We work at tuning in; at really seeing what is around us. We open ourselves to amazement. And once we begin to practice that amazed attention, we are surprised and still a bit unbelieving when it gives results in return. Our own fears diminish; we are calmer and happier. The life forms around us do better. We walk with a lighter step, perhaps leaving a lighter footprint. We don’t need to buy as much stuff. We feel, and move toward, our own place in the cycle—our own “home.” Our appreciation is contagious, as we show others what we are noticing, and how astounding a bird’s nest, or a bug, or an earthworm can be.

We hope to stay by the creek for a long, long time. We hope that the music of the salmon will accompany our own deaths, wherever and whenever they occur. We talk each year about recording it, just in case, but we don’t. We want to believe that it will always come back for real, and we want the full force of our grief if it does not.

We hope that our readers will visit some salmon this month. Eating salmon would also be good, especially if it is wild-caught or harvested from land-locked tanks. Return the bones to the earth in your garden, or under a potted plant, or carefully to a salmon-bearing creek. Give thanks as you do, and say some kind of prayer for the return, every year, of these sacred creatures.