On one of those November days when starved light gnaws the bones of the land, for the first time I witnessed salmon spawning. With battered grace they thrashed upstream, bashing themselves against the current, rocks, other obstacles, and their own mortality to reach their natal waters. Their ordeal had flayed away their steely overcoats to reveal the muscle that powered their thrust toward the new life for which they would sacrifice their own.
Awed and humbled, my husband and I exclaimed in cathedral tones our amazement at how beautiful and brave these ragged heroes were.
Overhearing us as he bumbled down the trail, a man sneered without pausing for our reply, “They’re not brave. It’s just their instinct, you know, mindless.”
At first I was angry on the salmon’s behalf, and then sadness washed away the anger. As a physician, I respect science and the habits of careful investigation it inculcates in its acolytes. I agree with the author of my college physics text, who stated that science should enhance rather than detract from our sense of wonder. Yet for some, the scientific worldview has become an excuse to leach the radiance from the world, to replace its aliveness, dripping and budding with meaning, with mechanistic metaphors more at home in a factory than in nature. They have reduced all acts—from art to altruism—to the blunt instrument of struggle to survive.
According to this impoverished philosophy, if human beings are so devoid of spirit, non-human creatures are even more at the mercy of the barest of biological imperatives. This attitude has dangerous repercussions for the community of life. When the world is so barren, it becomes easy to approach it as a collection of resources to exploit: a drawer one can dig around in and take items out of without concern for the integrity of what’s left inside. (After all, underwear and socks have no souls, let alone places in an ecosystem, and they are made to be used until they develop holes, not to vegetate in a drawer.) Rapacious capitalism thus becomes natural and the vulnerable—poor people, elders, children, and the disabled—become surplus to be discarded rather than family members to nurture, protect, and honor.
I am thankful that people and cultures remain that celebrate rather than consume our fellow beings and our sacred Earth, despite the efforts of dominator cultures to destroy them or convert them to their bulldozer point of view (what the Native American historian Jack Forbes calls by the Cree name wetiko, the mental illness of greed). A few weeks ago, I was honored to hear Roberta Basch of the Clatsop-Nehalem Tribe thanking the salmon, the waters, the earth, the forest, and the whole family of life at the Return of the Salmon festival. I was also recently overjoyed to meet a chronicler of the nobility of salmon in Richard Shelton, author of To Sea and Back: The Heroic Life of the Atlantic Salmon. One of my favorite writers, David James Duncan, is a Druidic devotee of wild waters and the fish who are their kings and queens; he praises trout (members of the salmon family) as holy beings.
I wish the guy who tossed off his snarky dismissal of salmonid heroism had stopped to watch the fish wrestle against the dimming of their light for the sake of their offspring to come. I wish he had been seated beside me to hear Roberta Basch invoking salmon and their beautiful environment. I hope he wanders into a used bookstore and the works of Shelton, Forbes, and Duncan swim up to him, luring him into streams with salmon and trout. Maybe next time he hikes beside flowing water during spawning season, he will pause and squat down at the river’s edge and allow their broken glory to break into him, and he will release the sarcasm and anomie with which he had shielded himself from life’s radiance, shedding that steely skin and revealing the muscle of a living heart—human heart, salmon heart, beating their way together upstream for the sake of the generations to come.