We came upon the salmon where they were pooled up in the river, massing and swaying like life loving itself.
By autumn, in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes states, a fornication ritual is under way on the rivers. Salmon are bearing fertility up from the depths of the ocean.
In the Northwest, salmon arrive from unknown oceanic journeys, following unmapped routes we don't fully comprehend. Guided by an internal compass in the brain, they navigate the ocean, sensing an infinitely arcing grind of low-voltage current created by the earth's magnetic field. When they reach the continental shelf, their superior sense of smell allows them to locate their home river among all other streams emptying into the Pacific. They have traveled thousands of ocean miles in search of a few square feet of river gravel, the very pool that was their bassinet.
They are as beautiful as polar light. As salmon enter freshwater streams up and down the coast, they change color, lightening and darkening special cells that control pigmentation. Ocean salmon have metallic blue backs and silvery underbodies that function as natural reflectors to protect them from sea predators. But swimming upriver, with the sexual urge upon them, their alchemical skins begin to change, shimmering silvers blending into a wash of blues and pinks. Catching a salmon on rod and line is to witness freshness in the physical world. These fish, new to the river, are resplendent.
The salmon has seen the world and is now returning home. Poet Ted Hughes spoke of a salmon "with the clock of love and death in his body." The sight of a salmon leaping a waterfall makes one feel like cheering. Salmon struggle upstream, driven by a force they cannot resist, a life force we cannot fully understand. After all, what fish are these that climb mountains?
Salmon spend most of their lives at sea, but the river is their cradle and their grave. All Pacific salmon and many Atlantic salmon and steelhead die after their first spawning run. After emptying themselves of milt and eggs over river gravel, salmon suffer a fatal loss of equilibrium, succumbing to the current they once mastered. Their life spirit draining away with the river, salmon slide onto shoals or wash up on gravel bars, there to become a feast for raven, eagle, and bear. Their corpses enrich the stream and nourish the land with nutrients brought up from the ocean. Dying salmon are said to turn the tundra green. Nowhere else on earth, except perhaps in the mating swarms of mayflies, does so much life perish at one time and on such an epic scale.
In the Northwest, salmon are associated with bounty. Part of the mass of the river we see before us is salmon. Having traveled the entire way, first down and then up the river of their births, salmon embody the essence of river life. They are mythopoeic. We offer them our prayers, songs, and poems. They in turn nourish our legends and our science. No other fish has inspired such a deep and universal reflection.
On the Pacific coast, Indians from northern California to Alaska have told the tale of a great salmon spirit dwelling in the sea. Once a year this spirit dons the skin of a salmon, returning to the land to sacrifice itself for the tribes. Many religions contain the theme of a tortured god. Christ dies for our sins; Prometheus is chained to the rock for stealing fire from heaven to give to mankind; Odin demands the greatest victim of sacrifice — himself. "There is a tortured god in every mythology," wrote the poet Robinson Jeffers, "and this seems to me the fittest symbol to express something that is most beautiful and painful and true."
We share with the salmon a universe both divine and self-torturing. Salmon are a reminder that the world of living things is formed in eternal conflict, that life is ruled by struggle and desire, and that death is inseparable from life. Viewing the spectacle of salmon returning from the sea, we are reminded of the essentially tragic nature of life on earth. And we see the world as all the more beautiful for its dying.
Why care about the salmon? Because their destiny is intertwined with ours. Watching salmon come round on the great wheel of life, we too touch a mystery. We see nature as a measure of the sacred and the river as a mirror of the human condition. Perhaps it can be said that by loving the salmon, we seek to forge a healing link with the universe. Like a salmon struggling up a high waterfall, nature lifts us above the ordinary, all the while keeping us connected to the things that count the most.
* Michael Checchio, San Francisco California, is a freelance writer and the author of A Clean, Well-Lighted Stream, a book of essays about trout and salmon, and the the places of trout and salmon in the West.