"I stopped casting. I just stood there. What an incredible good fortune it’s been to have learned, so early in life, that rivers always reward the man, woman, or child who just stands there..."

their bodies are needles
a song and a prayer for the greatest travelers of the pacific northwest
essay
by david james duncan


I conjure a day in October, 1968, that took a sudden unexpected turn towards the primordial. I was sixteen at the time, my big brother was recently dead, and the Vietnam war was raging, scaring me witless; fear made me wild and unschoolable; my grades grew too crappy for college; the draft was a year and a half away. Something in the autumn air pierced my worry, though, and moved me to drive, without purpose, up to the Columbia Gorge in my old ’55 Buick.

The big river was at its Indian Summer low, leaving it broken, downstream of the dams, by hundreds of long, beautifully sculptural sandbars. Picking the longest such bar in sight, I begin walking towards the tip to try and see what it was pointing at.

In the center of a two-mile-wide stretch of river, I ran out of finger. No one in sight. No wind. No sound but the river’s near silent slide. No waders with me, but I eased in up to my pockets, the better to feel the big seaward sliding. Sopped my wallet, though I didn’t know it yet.

Junkie for fish that I am I’d brought a rod, and started throwing one of those big spinners of the day with the fluorescent orange golf tees on ’em -- a ridiculous means of seeking salmon. I hooked the nothing I deserved. But who cares when it’s just you and two miles of empty river, even measuring sideways: you and two thousand miles, measuring lengthways. Seeing a fish or two roll, I kept casting for a time. But as the air turned eveningward, turned magic, my lure started looking to me like a shot-up bomber going deservedly down over North Vietnam. I stopped casting. I just stood there. What an incredible good fortune it’s been to have learned, so early in life, that rivers always reward the man, woman, or child who just stands there.

The gift came this time, just shy of dusk, when all across that vast plain of water, beneath a still vast dome of orange and blue, every salmon I couldn’t catch, in accord with some invisible signal, began to jump and roll. And there were thousands! The entire face of Chewana, the Great River, became a miles-wide cauldron: great chinooks and bright coho; sockeyes and huge Idaho steelhead too, in those days; all but two of the dams in place, the extinctions coming fast, yet still the river put on her ancient show.

And the sound! The body language. Salmon dance and salmon drumming. Coho slashing the surface so close by they made me yell, then laugh at myself. Huge chinook leaping so far off their bodies had long since vanished when the cymbal crash arrived across the orange and blue. Ocean energy, mountain born, boiling and flying, roiling and spiraling, both directions, as far as the eye could see.

For those who’ve never seen them in their rightfully vast numbers, my words, all these years later, might sound like one more bitter elegy to wonders glimpsed, then lost forever. But this is not elegy. This is invocation. The gifts nature keeps trying to bequeath us are astounding, if we merely greet those gifts with a watershed and world that enables them to be.

To see a magnificent ocean fish, in fresh water, is always like a dream. And in a dream, everything is inside you. A piece of my interior will never leave that sand fingertip amid the salmon-shattered flow. Salmon are a light darting not just through water but through the human mind and heart. Salmon help shield us from fear of death by showing us how to follow our course without fear, and how to give ourselves for the sake of things greater than ourselves. Their mass passage from the sea’s free invisible into the river’s sacrificial and seen, is not just every American’s but every Earthborn man’s, woman’s, and child’s birthright.

Their bodies remain the needle, their migration the thread, that sews this vast, broken region into a whole. No kilowatt can replace this, no barge can transport it. The Columbia that Industrial Man has given us is dying. The rivers least touched by man thrive. The finned, winged, and four-leggeds watch, waiting to join us, or not, in the world we do or do not create.

So make your offerings, campadrés. Columbia, Cowlitz, Grand Ronde, Deschutes, John Day, Clearwater, Bitterroot, Salmon, Skagit, Soleduck, Snake, Spokane, Metolius, McKenzie, Yakima, Umatilla, Humptulips, Klickitat, Klamath, Kalama, Clackamas, Malheur, Minam, Blackfoot, Nestucca, Wallowa, Owyhee, Payette, Powder, Boise, Flathead, Okanagan, Coeur d’Alene, Elwha, Quinalt, Clark Fork, White Salmon, Willamette, Washougal, Wind. Roll on.

(Originally run February 2002)


David James Duncan is the author of two novels, The River Why and The Brothers K, and several collections of stories and essays: River Teeth, My Story as Told by Water, and God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right. He lives, laughs, plays, writes, and fishes with his wife and two daughters in Montana. More from David James Duncan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.


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©2004 David James Duncan
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