Commercial and sport fishers, next time you hear a buddy grumbling over what some other Lower Columbia fisher is or isn’t allowed to catch, tell him he’s being a tempest in a Stanley thermos cup. The truth is: untold millions of endangered smolts are being annihilated each year not by any kind of fishing, but by ludicrous, politically-decreed Anti-River deaths we can no longer scientifically monitor or see…”
by david james duncan
I want to start with a fish story, partly because it took place very near here, and partly because it alludes to a small salmon crisis that will help me bring our Big Salmon Crisis into focus. So…
Let’s flash back to early March, 1979, and imagine that I’m 27 years old, living in a hundred-dollar-a-month shack three miles from here, on the banks of Portland’s abused little Johnson Creek, hoping to become a writer. But I’m mired in a meandering mess of a manuscript that kind of reminds me of Johnson Creek. It’s about a young fisherman trying to find his way in life, but the writing is not going well. I’m stupid when I hurry. But I have to hurry because I’m destitute. I’m destitute because, although I mow lawns for a living, under the nom de mower, “The Lawn Ranger,” I mowed eleven lawns just yesterday to earn this writing day off. And on the eleventh I hit a brick hidden in tall grass, totaling my mower. I made $120 on the lawns. I spent $350 on a new mower.
Desperate to forget my negative $230 day and the fourteen lawns I’ll have to mow tomorrow, I sat down to my writing early, but felt tired as hell after all that mowing, and depressed as hell about my finances, so now I’m jangled as hell from trying to buck myself up with too much coffee. Meanwhile, in the world on the pages before me, this fisherman idiot, named Gus, is making me jealous as hell, since every morning, as I leave my hundred buck a month dump to mow lawns, he steps out the door of his beautiful riverside cabin to fish some gorgeous stream I’d kill to get to fish. But then all he does is philosophize and complain and get drunk about it! Why won’t Gus shut up? Why should he end up with the beautiful Eddy? Why doesn’t he move the hell out of the world and lovely cabin I built for him and let me move in in his place?
Another problem with this March day on Johnson Creek: the creeks and rivers all over northwest Oregon have dropped after a week of rain and turned that magic shade of anadromous green. I know there’s fresh steelhead in the Sandy and Clackamas. I want to go fishing so bad I can taste it. But clackety clack whack go my permanently green lawn-stained fingers on the Royal manual as Gus goes fishing instead. More problems: Gus goes fishing with cane rods, or with beautiful custom graphites he’s built for himself, whereas I busted my only real, cheesy 8-dollar Army Navy Surplus flyrod on a fall chinook three months ago, and the money I was saving since New Years for a new rod, and for gas money to go use it, is now a frickin’ Jacobsen lawnmower-yet down in my manuscript world it’s GUS who keeps complaining!
I bend over my typewriter and send Gus down to the Tamanawis River, hoping one of the beautiful cedar trees surrounding his cabin will drop a limb and crush him. He survives, reaches the river, and catches a bunch of fish instead. I try to make him slip in fast water and drown. He catches more fish, even bigger than the earlier ones-then complains some more about it. I type him back home and feed him a T-bone steak for dinner, the bone of which I plan to splinter and turn sideways in his throat till it pokes out his jugulars. “You can’t off me, Lawn Man!” Gus laughs out of the page. “I’m your only chance at fame and fortune. Pour me another drink, then put me to bed. But grab my journal for me first, I feel like doing some more complaining. Then in the morning, when you go mowing, I’m going fishing again. Hup hup! Get typing, asshole!”
MAN have I had too much coffee!
I stop typing, breathe deep, and gaze out the window at Johnson Creek, where a mallard and a few plastic ziplock bags are floating by. My home water: 26 miles of suburb-draining semi-sewer originating in onamonopoeic BORING OREGON.
But that anadromous green even so! I can’t stand it. I dart out to the toolshed, rummage behind the plywood, find a little blue trout pole saved since boyhood, and inspect it. Only two guides missing. At least a hundred feet of decrepit 6 lb test monofilament on the Mitchell 300 reel with the handle so bent I bang my knuckles on the bail when I reel it. “PERFECT!” I shout. I grab a shovel, rush to the garden, overturn a spadeful of earth, find a single nightcrawler, and shout, “MORE PERFECT!”
Next: I need weight. Piece o’ cake! The splitshot I use to sink nymphs when I go whitefishin’ on the Deschutes. Now a hook. Hmm. Been a while since I baitfished. Gus’s mom’s baitfishing in my manuscript has so grossed me out that I’ve sworn off gorgible barbed steel for life. But that green water! I grab my $1.99 circular plastic non-waterproof steelhead flybox, pull out a Greenbutt Skunk, and attack it with a nail clipper till it’s bald as the diseased Labrador who lives across the creek. I then tie it on, apologize to the nightcrawler, skewer it over the diseased dog, crimp on a couple splitshot, then sprint, shameless as Ma Orviston, to the deep green glide on the bend in the cornfield.
Johnson Creek. Insane place to fish. But it’s me, not Gus, who’s looking at its promising greenness. It’s me, not Gus, who’s heard a few sea-run cutts come up this sad creek in early spring. It’s me, not Gus, who tosses the Dave’s Diseased Dog n’ Crawler Special into the diseased but green waters. And it’s me not Gus, who feels a sudden rush of good old-fashioned fishermanly HOPE.
And by God, first cast, something takes the Dog & Crawler. I strike. What then leaps out of the green, cartwheeling, three feet in the air, is as impossible as any sight I’ve ever seen: a mint-bright female steelhead. But I know it and all of you know it: water is a miracle. Its capacity to heal and to forgive and to create new life is pure miracle. As Elizabeth Woody’s Uncle Louis says: “Water is transitory. It is pervasive. It is our sacrament.”
My caffeine overdose, in the face of miracle and sacrament, nearly kills me on the spot. I clutch my racing heart briefly, but 27 proves a bit too young to die. The steelhead’s cartwheel turns out to have been reconnaissance: she likes the look of my tough Portland ‘hood and me so little she decides to move back to Astoria. She takes off downcreek, shooting under an overhanging tunnel of Himalyan briars, swimming faster than I can run, my dorked Mitchell screaming, ancient 6 lb. somehow holding. I’m in street clothes. Leather shoes. A little writer’s vest made in Nepal, out of wool, with brass buttons. But I’m a lifelong Willamette Valley creek fisherman: I’ve hooked many humongous carp who made this very move. So I do what I’ve always done: leap into the very center of Johnson Creek, land in waistdeep water, keep my feet somehow, duck in under the overhanging briar tunnel, and take off sprint-wading after my fish.
The steelhead is heroic. Aren’t they all? She doesn’t end her reverse migration till she’s run all the way down past the Southeast 55th Street Bridge.
Then comes the Twilight Zone moment: as I’m beaching my beauty on a garbage-strewn gravel bar, an enormous GMC vehicle pulls into a driveway right across the creek from me-with three giant Eagle Claw steelheading rods and Ambassador reels on the roof rack, and three steelhead fisherman faces jammed against the steamy glass, gawking as some longhaired guy in leather shoes and soaked writer clothes slides an absurdly big bright steelhead onto the banks of the sewer that runs through their sideyard.
“We’re just back from three days on the Coquille,” one of them calls out when the windows come down.
“Where we got skunked,” another adds.
“What’d it hit?” asks the third.
“Greenbutt Skunk,” I answer, leaving out the nail clippers and Diseased Dog ‘n’ Crawler. (By the way, Buzz Ramsey: I’ve got a copyright on that lure.)
By the time I wade the half mile back to my house and pull out the binoculars, the three Coquille steelheaders are shoulder to shoulder on the 55th Street bridge with their big Eagle Claws, strafing the ten-inch-deep riffle beneath with plugs.
Green water and big fish proved magic that day in more ways than one. After I’d showered and bent back to my writing, the prose started to sing-I suppose because my heart had done the same. Though it was early March on Johnson Creek and late October on the Tamanawis, I spent the evening in harmony with Gus for a change, writing two of the best scenes in the book.
The rest, whether or not it’s literary history, is my history. A couple years, thirty or so rejection letters, one more busted lawnmower, and several thousand lawns later, I titled and published The River Why, moved out of Portland to the rivers I’ve lived on ever since, and began a new life that began as a dream on paper.
The last thing I ever thought this new life would include was poor Johnson Creek. But for better or worse, my first novel grew famous during the same years that salmon enhancement efforts and stream restoration groups were rising up all over America-and I sometimes felt as if a phone book shared by all of these groups contained no name or phone number under the heading “Fundraising Speakers” but mine. I have now given something like 300 talks to such groups, two of them to the heroes who’ve helped resurrect Johnson Creek. I’ve waded scores of grievously wounded Oregon and Washington creeks. And I’m here to tell you, it’s been a healing experience. Water is indeed transitory-but so are its wounds. Water heals-fast! Life returns. Amazing things have been done for salmon and their lost and defiled rivers in the last decade. Communities of previously estranged people, fired by love for restored waters and salmon, forget their differences; neighbors grow neighborly; restoration become a lifestyle and a religion and a party and a habit and a joy. Last fall I wrote an essay on Washington State salmon rehab projects, which essay Congress is going to read-if Congress still reads. To research this essay I visited a bunch of streams in Oregon and Washington whose salmon have truly risen from the dead.
On just one of them, Terrell Creek, up near Bellingham, I had one Twilight Zone moment after another. For instance: a big strapping fellow came out of a giant Puget Sound BP oil refinery, where he works, beamed at me, shook my hand, and told me that my book of rabid river conservation essays was his very favorite and that he passes it out like communion wafers to his pals there in the refinery. ?!?
Another great moment: I met a lovely, extremely female Brazilian software engineer who drew men’s gazes like a magnet, but who had for some reason fallen in love with poor Terrell Creek instead. When this woman learned before my eyes that a school of two-inch coho had just been discovered in her beloved creek’s headwaters, she started waving her arms like palm trees over her head and singing “we’ve got juvies! we’ve got juvies!” and dancing this marvelous dance and composing coho birth announcements and preparing a feast and festival while the man in our circle gaped at her and, well, drooled, is, I guess, the scientific term.
I’ve learned from scores of such field trips that when even a few tax dollars are spent on restoring life instead squandering it, Americans go bananas in all kinds of wondrous ways. When Washington State was offered a federal grant of just $13 million over five years for salmon restoration, the people and private businesses of that state answered with over $30 million, and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours, of their own. Restoring even 10 yards of ruined riverbank is arduous work. In five years Washingtonians enhanced nearly two thousand miles of spawning and rearing habitat. More than 200,000 native trees have been planted and watered and weeded and maintained, to cool streams and shade out invasive plants. Fifty-four million salmon have been released into state streams. These united efforts were a labor of love that has cost U.S. taxpayers nothing. And tens of thousands of the hero-hours were logged by school children whose sole motivation is their yearning to keep salmon alive in this world with them.
Okay. Time for the Big Salmon Picture:
Here on the Columbia/Snake, the greatest intact web of pristine spawning tributaries in the lower 48 lies upstream of us in eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and wild Idaho. But this vast web is accessible only via the 140 mile corridor known as the Lower Snake River-and the Lower Snake is no river at all: it is a heatsink, a series of slackwaters, an unnatural mass of predators, a 35-year-old extinction-making disaster. Having been raised on the Bible, I call the Lower Snake “The Anti-River.” I do so for good reason: the slackwaters behind the four Anti-River dams are completely impassible to young salmonids-and were recently impassible to kayaker Bill Erickson, who is with us tonight, and whose name Buzz Ramsey and I have changed to Bill “Dead Smolt” Erickson. This impassibility has in turn inspired Endangered Species listings and a salmon-smolt-barging program that destroys the homing instincts and migratory ability of millions of endangered salmonids every year. The science that now monitors this ongoing disaster has been politicized under the current administration. Salmon-loving biologists have been pulled off the case, funds have been cut, research has been falsified, and the news we hear of salmonids is now largely controlled by blind powers who would save all dams at all cost, gut the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts, and to hell with wild salmon. What I want to stress, as a man of words, is that “Snake River Salmon” is the wrong term for what we’re fighting for. The number of rivers and streams at stake here is STUPENDOUS. The media soundbyte “Snake River salmon” drives me wild, because it’s a ludicrous understatement of what is being eradicated: the lower Snake is just the salmon’s gate, not their vast wild palace. The LSR dams bar the way, going and coming, to a salmon-generating nexus entailing five-thousand-five-hundred miles of intact spawning and rearing rivers and creeks. I live near those waters, and they break my heart they’re so healthy and wealthy and beautiful-because the gateway that should carry this beauty and health and wealth down to all of you is a monstrosity.
What I want to stress is that Terrell Creek, with its resurrected coho juvies, is seven miles long, and Johnson Creek, with its few miracle steelhead, cutthroat and coho, is 26 miles long, and these little urban streams are grieviously damaged. The work being done to restore them is fantastic: more power to everyone involved. But turning to the Big Picture: in the great wilds of Idaho, eastern Oregon, and Washington there is little or no damage to their many thousands of miles of rivers and streams. If I were to list all the tribs affected by the Lower Snake Anti-River we’d be here all night. The salmon being driven to their doom are those of the Imnaha, Grande Ronde, Wenaha, Lostine, Minam, Wallowa, and Powder Rivers in Oregon, the South and Main Clearwater, North, South and Middle Salmon, Selway, Rapid, and Lochsa Rivers in Idaho, more rivers in Washington, and almost countless tributaries in all three states. A few tribs whose fish I’ve met on the ninety-mile Lochsa River alone: the Crooked Fork, Pack Creek, White Sand Creek, Big Sand Creek, Killed Colt Creek, Brushy Fork Creek, Spruce Creek, Warms Spring Creek, Lake Creek, Sponge Creek, Hungry Creek, Boulder Creek, Old Man Creek, Fire Creek, Eagle Creek, Fish Creek, Pete King Creek, Deadman Creek. And the Lochsa web is tiny compared to the Clearwater web, or the vast Salmon River webs, or the Grand Ronde web.
The Lower Snake River dams were commissioned by a 1955 Cold War Congress who wanted locally produced power available to the Hanford City nuclear works in case the USSR nuked us. But these dams supplied no power to Hanford, the U.S. was not attacked, the USSR is long dissolved, and Hanford City’s been a radioactive ghost town for 44 years. So why are the four dams still strangling the economies of towns up and down the salmon-loving Pacific Coast?
The falsifying of science under the current administration is tragic. When real science becomes politically prostituted, remember the basic laws of nature and salmon and rivers. Masaru Emoto, the scientist who has long photographed and analyzed the health and crystal structure of various kinds of water, writes: “Water in a river remains pure because it is moving. When water becomes trapped, it dies. Therefore, water must constantly be circulated. The water, or blood, in the bodies of the sick is usually stagnant. When blood stops flowing, the body starts to decay… Water is life force. Water is the transporter of energy throughout all bodies.” Our crisis in a nutshell.
When real science becomes the legal hostage of neocon scam artists, visit the hostages themselves: I fished the Lochsa’s Crooked Fork three weeks ago to escape the August smoke in Montana. I was trying for native cutts, but in an hour’s fishing only hooked two, because the thousands of healthy steelhead and chinook smolts in that creek won’t leave your fly alone. These perfectly healthy smolts, as I speak, are moving helplessly toward the Anti-River’s eight-dam deadwater gauntlet, with its billion dollar techno-traps and fish-whirligigs and rollercoasters and sham science and radio-transmitter-installers and bureaucratic beancounters and turbines and nitrogen poisonings and blackwatered barge-prisons. The Anti-River is going to wipe out 198 of every 200 of them. That’s no exaggeration: the survival rate on this huge nexus of streams in a rough year-and they’re almost all rough under global warming-is about one percent. If some Ken Lay type scoundrel bilks electricity users for billions and the BPA calls this an emergency and runs the Anti-River for hydropower alone, we get virtually no survivors. I know these smolts personally, and hold them in hand every year. The annual slaughter of millions of them kills me-and almost literally killed our friend Bill “Dead Smolt” Erickson.
Commercial and sport fishers, next time you hear a buddy grumbling over what some other Lower Columbia fisher is or isn’t allowed to catch, tell him he’s being a tempest in a Stanley thermos cup. The truth is: untold millions of endangered smolts are being annihilated each year not by any kind of fishing, but by ludicrous, politically-decreed Anti-River deaths we can no longer scientifically monitor or see. The truth is: the 140-mile deadwater that lets Lewiston call itself a “seaport” is salmon’s bitterest enemy a thousand times over.
But the incredibly hopeful sister fact is: the removal of these four dams is the single greatest restoration move that can be done for wild salmon in the lower 48, and probably the greatest salmon restoration move now possible anywhere in the world. That’s why we can’t let this one go. The corroborating studies are massive and conclusive. The politically prostituted counter studies are endless, too, so trust SAVE OUR WILD SALMON’s data. If you want to know about the economic shakedown for the region, ask SOS about the Rand report, or about the fine new economic study, “Revenue Stream,” both of which demonstrate massive savings to taxpayers, much more robust local and regional economies, and many thousands of new jobs with the Lower Snake dams gone. Ask SOS about the Northwest Energy Coalition study that demonstrates how easily lost hydro can be replaced.
My last word on this issue: in our zeal to remove the Anti-River, don’t forget the wheat farmers. Because of federal subsidy monies given to barging, the rail lines the farmers need to get their crops to market have fallen into disrepair. Farming communities need our help to transition and survive. So let’s do help. In the same breath that we demand LSR dam removal we should demand transition funds for the farmers’ transportation system. The yelling back and forth between fishers and farmers preserves a deadly status quo. The Sermon on the Mount miracle feast was loaves and fishes. Not one or the other. BOTH. Fishers and farmers are brothers and sisters and wheat farmers are in as much trouble as we are: their work is fossil fuel dependent; their market in China is being replaced by a Chinese movement to grow its own wheat; the three trillion dollar debt created by the current administration threatens LSR barging subsidies; and the Endangered Species Act, tribal treaties, and economic good of the Northwest all call for LSR dam removal.
So don’t shout at the farmers. Their nerves are shot. They’ll just shout back. Empathize and strategize instead. A wheat farmer just graciously hosted me and 26 rabid fishers for a poetic pro-salmon anti-dam poster I’m doing with the Patagonia Company. Can you imagine what a stretch that was for him? Let’s stretch back: let’s move our imaginations to the next level, and ask how fishers and farmers solve the deadwater problem TOGETHER. Most of the wheat on earth is transported by rail. Repairing and subsidizing rail lines to launch wheat at Umatilla instead of Lewiston is a 140-mile shift. Is that insurmountable for the people who invented the federal highway system, transcontintental railroad, satellite telecommunications, arthroscopic brain and heart surgery, iPods, and the Hubble Space Telescope? If fishers and farmers work toward this 140-mile shift with our mutual benefit at heart, the politics of antagonism will implode. The Omega 3s in salmon are equally good for us all. When fishers grow gardens and farmers go fishin’, hey presto! We’re the very same people! Shouting Breach Breach Breach is as silly as shouting SAVE OUR DAMS NO MATTER WHAT THEY KILL. Democracy does not mean, HE WHO SCREAMS LOUDEST GETS WHAT HE WANTS EVEN IF WHAT HE WANTS IS FATAL. The LSR dams weren’t built for flood control though Slade Gorton used to scream that they were: their water level is kept constant for the barges. Only one of the four provides irrigation, and those same waters can be lifted from river to soil when the dams are gone by means of two wondrous devices known as PIPES and PUMPS.
Be diplomatic, fishers. Because the rhetoric has been so crazed, we must state over and over that we don’t want farmers hurt. But it’s also past time the farmers stop insisting on a transportation system that crushes our way of life. The way to save farming and fishing communities is to join forces, grab our derailed politicians’ attention, and demand the same mutually beneficial solution: fix the farmers’ rail system, replace the Ice Harbor irrigation systems, and remove the four dams that keep slaughtering smolts by the million! Save people, jobs and species, not just dams. Save democracy, science and honesty, not belligerence. Imagine wheat moving on viable rail lines beside 140 miles of native river and the farmers out fishing that river with us. Imagine salmon and steelhead migrating freely and big tribal and community celebrations with jubilant BP employees and bewilderingly wonderful Brazilian software dancers attending, and a vast flow of dollars restored to people from Stanley to Riggins to Lewiston to Colfax to Troy to Umatilla to The Dalles to Portland/Vancouver to Astoria as salmon runs thrive.
I’d like to end with a few words from the realm of spirit.
A few years ago I published a book called My Story as Told By Water, about my lifelong love for rivers and wild salmon. When the book won a following, then even a few priests, preachers and theologians began to sing its praises, the religion editor of one of the West’s fatter newspapers noticed, and phoned the Portland essayist Brian Doyle. This editor told Brian that some pagan named Duncan was crisscrossing the land preaching that salmon are essential to the Pacific Northwest’s chain of life, its economy, its spiritual integrity, its Christian theology, and its culture. “I know the man,” said Brian Doyle.
The guy claims, the editor grumbled, that a diet of wild salmon flesh will cure mental illness, rejuvenate your sex life, inspire cold-turkey abstinence from network TV and partisan politics, and unite the human heart with the kingdoms of nature and of heaven. I’m concerned that this could damage the number of subscriptions to our fine fat violent newspaper.”
“If more salmon come,” said Brian Doyle, “we’ll keep subscribing to have something to wrap our fresh salmon in.”
“Duncan gets on a high horse,” the editor groused. “For instance he calls salmon ‘divine gifts created in an unending Beginning’ and ‘a product less of evolution than of unconditional love.’”
“He’s a Scot,” replied Brian, “a people famed for strong stances. The Scots flavor their whiskies with dirt. They fish with seventeen-foot rods. Their men wear skirts. They eat haggis for godsake. But they do love their salmon. Maybe it’s love that makes Duncan’s horse so high and mighty.”
Brian’s grasp of us Scots is rooted in his Irishness. The Irish make their whiskies out of spud lymph. They kiss an unhygienic stone for luck. They play their pipes with their armpits. They’re too busy scraping fiddles to fish with any length of rod. Their men don’t wear kilts but their women wear the pants. They envy the Scots terribly. But they’re our ancient cousins and love the salmon as we do. So when the editor hired Brian to interview me, I was pleased.
The question we were to debate was whether it is theologically accurate to say that wild salmon are holy. The trouble with this plan was, I’ve spent thousands of days on rivers awestruck by this very holiness. So for me debate is not possible. My certainty as to the holiness of salmon long ago achieved the kind of vehemence we associate with Old Testament prophets. Indeed, upon learning of our debate topic, I simply asked Brian, who’s Catholic, if he were well enough connected in Rome to get my views on salmon’s holiness published in some obscure corner of the Bible.
Brian got excited. “Where might we sneak it in, do you think?” he asked.
“How about Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Coho?” I suggested.
“The few who notice may object,” said he.
“Subtlety then,” I whispered. “Nahhum, Habakkuk, Humpback, Zephaniah.”
“Could be we’ve missed the deadline,” Brian opined.
“Rome saints new saints,” I argued. “They can sign off on a Song of Salmon! I’ll pen it gratis! I promise to be inspired! I’ll wear a crimson beanie as I write! Think of it! A Book of Chinook in the Holy Bible! The legislation we’d pass! The restoration funds we’d raise!”
Brian made me settle for the newspaper, that day. But salmon never stop hoping, so neither do I. Keep an eye out in future editions of the bible, folks.
For our newspaper interview, Brian began by asking: “So how is a wild chinook salmon the size of your leg a holy creature?” I will end with my answer because it wasn’t mine at all: it was Christianity’s and salmon’s answer and way bigger than any of us, so the pride I take in it isn’t self pride: it’s salmon pride.
“Salmon are holy,” I replied, “because on the bible’s very first page God says, ‘Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life…. And God created great whales and fishes and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and God saw that it was good, and blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas.’” (Does that sound like a description of an industrial pond full of tilapia or a brown tide of net-penned salmon-sewage?) Salmon are holy because ‘the Earth is the Lord’s’ (Psalms), and because ‘everything shall live whither the river cometh and the fish shall be exceeding many and ye shall inherit them, one as well as another’ (Ezekiel). (Does that sound like the Snake Anti-River that has killed 90% of our divine inheritance in 35 years?) Salmon are holy because we humans were placed here as ‘caretakers (Genesis), whom Jesus advised to steward earth, river and sea not as self-serving industrialists would have it, but ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (Luke, Mark, Matthew), as the Father who created all forms of life would have it. Salmon are holy because they’re the life’s blood and beloveds of fisher folk and the first disciples of Christ were fisher folk, same as us, so it’s the trade of Peter, James, John and Jesus we are fighting to defend here. Salmon are holy because, when their flesh feeds even the most intractable salmon-haters among us, they are literally ‘loving their enemies and doing good to those who hate them.’ Salmon are holy because, when they feed their young bodies to kingfishers and otters and eagles, and their larger ocean-going bodies to seals, sea lions, orcas, and their magnificent, sex-driven, returned-to-the-river bodies to bears and Indian tribes and sport and commercial fishers and fly fishers, and then even their spawned-out nitrogen-rich bodies to salmonberry bushes, swordferns, cedar trees and wildflowers, they have served us from one end of their lives to the other as a kind of living gospel themselves.
Wild Pacific salmon of all six species have forever climbed our rivers like the heroes of some wondrous poem or song, nailing their shining bodies to lonely beds of gravel not for anything they stand to gain, but that tiny silver offspring and three hundred salmon-eating species of flora and fauna may live and thrive. When these blessings come no longer, the Northwest’s living image of self-sacrifice goes silent: no more sermon. As the father of three fine children to whom I’d love to pass down the sense that their hearts are heroic and their souls immortal, I find the silence of salmonless rivers very hard to bear.
Salmon have no choice but to return to us. That leaves us fishers no way to honor them, or preserve our own honorable trade, but to defend them. So: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Song of Salmon, FOREVER!
This piece is taken from David James Duncan’s keynote address at “Extinction Stops Here: A Celebration of Salmon and Rally For Action,” held on September 19, 2006, at Sellwood Riverfront Park in Portland, Ore. 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.