The sun came out today after days of storms. I had lots of work to do, but I dashed outside to enjoy the sun anyway. Plump gray clouds dotted the pale blue sky and rode along the tops of the snow spackled gorge cliffs. Gold shimmered in the air and fluttered on the branches of the alder, birch, and cottonwoods that grew along the river and popped up in groups here in there amongst the dark copses of evergreen. It's the last show of color before winter. Some of the gold and yellow has already fallen, knocked from the trees by a wind so strong it became a tornado not far from here.
I left the house and walked to the Columbia River and watched the choppy gray-green water for a time. Then I hurried up over the railroad tracks and across the state highway and walked toward the fairgrounds. I wanted to see if the salmon were running in the creek. I stood on a footbridge over the creek and looked down.
The water ran deep and fast. I couldn't see any salmon. I looked over closer to the shore where the water was a bit calmer. That was where the salmon often rested before continuing their journey. I didn't see any there either. The higher water made the trip upstream easier for the returning salmon, but it also made it more difficult: They didn't have to struggle up over the rocks but they had to push against the weight of more water.
I smiled as I looked down at the water. I had been feeling stressed out by the news lately. It sometimes seemed as if the whole world was falling apart. Even my calm reasonable husband wondered if it was all about to end. After eight years of living in the hell of the Bush administration, we thought things would get better quicker sooner. And we thought the crazies would calm down.
That has not happened.
As I watched the water, I thought about how often I just want to give up and walk away. I hear so many people saying the same thing. Nothing I did seemed to make a bit of difference in the grand scheme of things. I looked away from the creek, toward the rocky shores, and I saw crows eating something. Salmon? I crossed the footbridge, then walked along the cliffs near the creek until I found a path down to the shore.
The rocks, most of them stressed to the point of fracture--like Andy Goldsworthy art pieces--stuck out of the muddy plain that went from creek to lake. I walked carefully, trying to avoid the mud and the rocks. I watched the crows from afar. They were feasting on salmon. The red flesh of the salmon was startling against the black, brown, and gray rocks and mud.
I hoped these dead salmon had completed their mission: to spawn.
Salmon are such heroic creatures to me. I understand they are answering an instinctual biological call that they probably have no control over, yet their journey is a kind of heroic quest. They're born in fresh water, yet because of some evolutionary process scientists don't quite understand, salmon are able to adapt to salt water. And when it's time to spawn, their bodies change yet again as they return to fresh water. During this return they swim upstream, against the rush of water, up over rocks, through muddy shallows, all in the search for home, all in an effort to spawn. They don't let obstacles stop them; they jump over or around them!
I want to be like them.
The Irish thought the salmon were one of the wisest and most sacred of all creatures. Yet they fished them into extinction. The Native people of this area also hold the salmon in high esteem. Before the white settlers came, the Columbia River ran red with salmon. They used to say you could walked across this wide Columbia River on the backs of the salmon: That's how many there were. I have dreamed it is still so. I have dreamed I am a salmon.
I turned away from the crows and walked south a bit, carefully making my way through the charnel grounds. That's what it was: rocks becoming dust; salmon becoming bird feed. I wondered where the eagles were, or the bears. Did coyotes and cougars eat salmon, too?
Every year at this time I wait for the salmon. I stand on the shores of Eagle Creek and watch. By the time they arrive at their particular spawning grounds, flesh is usually falling off their bodies. Their fins are often skinless, and you can see their bones. Still, the females have enough energy to lay salmon-colored pearls; the males have energy to fertilize these treasures.
The first time I saw salmon eggs, I thought some child's necklace had broken and the beads had scattered in the water.
Some years I put on high water boots and I slowly, carefully, wade into the stream. I can feel the icy water through the boots. I can feel the sandy creek bottom give a little beneath my soles. I stand very still. It doesn't take long before the salmon swim all around me. I immediately become one of them.
The salmon have healed me in ways I cannot articulate. When I was ill and felt like I could not find my way out of the mess of my life and my body, their journey inspired me. When I felt as though I had nothing left to say, the thought of them reminded me that I can be silent. And when I am sad, I see them in my mind's eye leaping, leaping out of the water—bedraggled, red with life, bodies twisting in the air—and I feel immense joy.
Today I stopped walking and sat on a log. I looked down and saw someone had carved the word "cunt" into the log. It didn't appear to have been scratched in angrily, as swear words often do. The letters flowed into one another, like caligraphy. I wondered if the writer was thinking of the great goddess Cunti or Cunina, the Roman goddess whose name meant "mother's milk." The word "cunt" has the same root as country, kin, kind. Meaning, to me, that we all come from the womb, from the cunt; therefore we are all kin. I doubted the carver knew any of this. Still, it seemed appropriate to think about our relationship to everyone and everything as I looked out at the water, the kildeer that ran back and forth across the plain, the crows eating salmon, and the cars going by on the highway in the near distance.
Just then a crow flew over to a rock near me and finished up a morsel of salmon. She fluffed her feathers and I could see she was probably a juvenile. That explained her close proximity. She ate her food and then flew back to a salmon. She stayed only a moment, then flew away. I got up and walked over to the carcass. The salmon was two and half feet long, pink, its eyes long gone. I wished it well. I thought of all of us who feel as though we are constantly swimming upstream to find home. It would be so much easier to be swept away, back to the ocean, back to when and where we could just go with the flow.
Yet this beautiful salmon did it. She continued to swim upstream.
I wished her well.
Then I walked up the path away from the creek and back to the road. I crossed another bridge on the way home and looked down at the stream. Ah. There. To the left under the cottonwoods where the creek pooled quietly, I spotted several salmon swimming just enough to remain stationary in the pool. Salmon rested in places like this before continuing their upstream journey. Without these places of respite, scientists believed, the salmon could never make it.
I watched for a while and then climbed the hill toward home. I had a lot to do when I got home. I was glad for the break.
Now I was ready to lay pearls and leap!
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