Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Spiritual Life of Salmon

God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good. Genesis 1:31b

The Biblical Creation story reminds us that we humans are latecomers in the emergence of life on earth. We depend upon the sun, the water, the flowering seeds, the living creatures in all their variety. They can and have existed without us, but we cannot exist without them.

The Creation story also reminds us that everything that God has made is very good. The story does not provide scientific explanation, but rather spiritual meaning: the purpose of creation is enjoyment. The end of creation is Sabbath, rest, relaxing into the wonder and beauty of what is. To be created in God’s image is to participate consciously in the mystery of it all, to take our place as part of the whole with a sense of humility and responsibility. To be human is to be aware that we are humus, earth creatures.

So far, so good. But here, at the very beginning, there is a problem. The priestly scribes who handed down this story to us interpreted our relationship to the rest of creation as one of domination. God commands humanity to fill the earth and subdue it; literally, to make it a slave. At least, that is the story we’ve been told, but it strikes me as being in tension with the Sabbath observance, the command to rest in creation, to delight in it as part of it rather than over and against it.

This tension has had serious consequences. In our rush to dominate the earth, we have forgotten how to live on it. The history of civilization is the history of cultural amnesia, overshooting the limits of the land base to the point of ecological collapse. We keep forgetting how to live on earth, we keep forgetting to keep the Sabbath. We’ve only heard the part of the story that we want to hear.

In the past, ecological collapse was relatively localized and followed the rise and fall of various imperial regimes: the destruction of the fertile crescent in Mesopotamia, the deforestation and desertification of North Africa, and so on until today we are overshooting the carrying capacity of the whole earth. We are in danger of forgetting, finally and forever, how to live on earth.

But it has not always been so. For example, for more than 10,000 years the Yurok, Karok, and Hoopa tribes have lived along the banks of the Klamath river in Northwest California. These indigenous peoples have long lived in harmony with the land and water, with salmon at the center of their food supply and culture. That is, until the late 1960s, when dams and irrigation ruined one of the world’s great salmon fisheries.

Unable to reach their traditional spawning grounds upriver because of the construction of dams for hydroelectric power, and with reduced water flow diverted for farm irrigation raising the temperature of the water, the salmon are dying. In 2002, 35,000 chinook and coho salmon went belly-up in the lower Klamath within a five day period, their stench permeating the river valley for days.

The indigenous tribes, who depend upon salmon for their livelihood, are facing radical changes in their diet and social structure. Rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes have sky-rocketed since the loss of their traditional diet. Poverty, suicide, and social decay are following the loss of an entire way of life that maintained the health of the tribes and the ecosystem of the Klamath for millennia.

The fisheries have deteriorated to the point that on May 1 of this year, commercial and recreational fishing for chinook salmon in the ocean off California and most of Oregon was banned for the first time in 160 years by the National Marine Fishery Service. So few fish returned to spawn upriver last year, fishing had to be halted throughout the salmon habitat.

This, despite the fact that for years the tribes, along with conservationists and fishermen, have urged the removal of the four dams on the Klamath River that are destroying the salmon’s habitat. They have repeatedly appealed to Warren Buffet, whose company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns the subsidiary operating the dams. Even thought the amount of energy generated by these aging dams is negligible and easily replaced by other sources, Berkshire Hathaway has refused to act to save the salmon.

As beneficiaries of an extractive economy that supports unsustainable exploitation of the planet, we have become inured to a Sabbath perspective that acknowledges the spiritual life of salmon and our communion with them. I wonder if we can really even understand the plea of the Yurok tribesman who wrote,

“The existence of dams, these weapons of mass destruction, harms the life of our salmon brothers. That’s right, I say ‘salmon brothers’ . . . we believe all creatures are related as brothers and come from the same Creator. It is hard for me to lift a fish out the water that has been trapped in my net and not hear him call out to me for help. And with so few salmon in the river these days, it is always with great respect that he will be food for my family and my people. I thank him and the Creator for the sacrifice of his life so that all can eat. . . . The threats to my salmon brothers must be removed. The water quality and streambed access for spawning salmon must be restored. The Yurok Tribe will protect our salmon brothers and we call upon all who love the earth and the river to join us . . . Let’s not allow this moment to pass and be lost along with the salmon forever.”[i]

If we really believed in the goodness of creation, we would not destroy it in this way. If we really believed that we humans are made in God’s image, the God who delights and rests in the Creation, we would be in communion with the salmon and the rest of Creation, of which we are but one part. We must learn how to live on earth again. There is too much at stake.

As Derrick Jensen argues,

“When I talk about taking out dams, I’m not ‘just’ talking about liberating rivers, and I’m not ‘just’ talking about saving salmon. I’m talking about forests and meadows and aquifers and everyone else whose home this was long before the arrival of civilization. I’m talking about those whose home this is. You cannot separate rivers from forests from meadows, and it’s foolish to think you can. If you kill rivers, you kill forests and meadows and everyone else. The same holds true for all parts of these relationships, in all directions.”[ii]

The salmon put on 95% of their weight in the ocean, then swim upriver to spawn and die, bringing with them an explosion of nutrients. Prior to the destruction of the rivers, about five hundred million pounds of salmon swam up the rivers of the Pacific Northwest each year, releasing hundreds of thousands of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous nourishing the trees along the riverbanks.

Bears and eagles eat the salmon. Gulls eat what the bears and eagles leave behind. Maggots eat what the gulls leave behind. Spiders eat the maggots-turned-flies. Caddisflies eat dead salmon. Baby salmon eat living caddisflies. And so the cycle continues.

Perhaps there is no better account of the spiritual life of salmon than the observation of Jonathan Moore. “I have seen sockeye salmon swimming upstream to spawn even with their eyes pecked out. Even as they are dying, as their flesh is falling away from their spines, I have seen salmon fighting to protect their nests. I have seen them push up creeks so small that they rammed themselves across the gravel. I have seen them swim upstream with huge chunks bitten out of their bodies by bears. Salmon are incredibly driven to spawn. The will not give up.” [iii]

Can we be any less committed to the preservation of life on earth than the salmon? What sacrifices are we willing to make for a sustainable future? Can we imagine living without four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River? Can we admit that the salmon have something to teach us?

We must remember how to live on earth again, acknowledging our debt to the salmon and to the Yurok and all those who never forgot. We must humbly ask them to teach us. We can not rightly honor God, the one, holy, and undivided Trinity, on this or any other feast day, until we learn again to honor the earth God has made.

In the words of the Ojibway people, let us pray:

Look at our brokenness.
We know that in all creation
Only the human family
Has strayed from the Sacred Way.
We know that we are the ones
Who are divided
And we are the ones
Who must come back together
To walk in the Sacred Way.
Sacred One,
Teach us love, compassion, and honor
That we may heal the earth
And heal each other. [iv]


[i] Quoted in Derrick Jensen, Endgame Volume II: Resistance, pp. 631-632.
[ii] This quote and the description that follows are taken from Jensen, pp. 605 – 606.
[iii] Quoted in Jensen, p. 606.
[iv] Earth Prayers From Around the World: 365 Prayers, Poems and Invocations for Honoring the Earth, p. 95.


Christopher said...

It seems we're having cross-current thoughts.

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

Wonderfully stated! Thank you.