[I wrote this piece in the spring of 2020 for a course in ecopsychology when I was a graduate student at Pacifica. I've left all the formal references, even though they are quite clunky given the style of the essay. One thing I really appreciated about grad school was being forced to write. I did my best to write about what brought me alive, what deepened me into my mythopoetic identity, all the while conforming to the course requirements and learning objectives, which was often quite the feat, and quite rewarding. This piece represents a fundamental thread of my being - participatory love making with the web of life in the spirit of the gift and in service to Mystery.]
We long to have the world flow through us like air or food. We are thirsty and hungry for something that can only be carried inside bodies.
-Lewis Hyde, The Gift (1983, pg. 12)
I stand in the river under a bright pink tag, hung by the restoration ecologists who spotted a spawning salmon beneath these bays, just days before. Last year’s blue tags number maybe a score, but this year’s pink are few. I am a human of the anthropocene, courting and grieving this keystone mythic being, as the runs recede, recede. This trip is my sixth. Pilgrimages to waters once thick with fish. Songs of ceremony echo faintly, breathing in the cambium rings beneath the bark of the last old redwood tree. I am doing my best to make it past the dam, to swim clear of the hatchery smolts. I am not from these lands. No human taught me the songs. I do not know the prayers. The runs perish. I am following the hunger of myth and place (Shepard, 1998, pg. 145), for the fish’s sake.
It is a cool day in early January, stratocumulus congregating in the blue sky. I am reluctant to step into the shady creek side and out of the morning sun, but I am not here for recreation. The damp air thickens. I can feel the moss of me clinging to a rock on the waters’ edge. I am vibrant and soft. But there is a weight on my shoulders. I know I am not likely to see a fish, even though it is prime spawning season. I visited the creek a week prior for a tour with the crew that hangs the tags. Marin County, California. Record low redds this year.
This is the only section of the Lagunitas Creek watershed that still supports salmon runs, albeit at less than one percent of its former returns, when the river was known as Tokelalume (Lagunitas Creek, 2020). The difference between an average 125,000 spawning salmon and 500. In 2013, there were 67. Dams patrol the rest of the watershed, like 1,400 of California’s rivers, leaving no major river wild (Kaufmann, 2017).
I reach a bridge, marked as a fish crossing by two carved wooden salmon screwed in an X. Educational signs that explain the creature’s life ways and urge spectators to remain quiet and out of the river, are sun-faded and covered in dirt. It feels like a ghost town. Or like the Shellmounds in Berkeley, now a mall or a parking lot. The humans, myself sometimes included, go about their errands as if they are not on sacred ground. As if this place was not once teeming with life and ceremony. A jogger thumps over the bridge and runs off into the hills, iPod bobbing in his pocket.
I have seen a handful of blue tags by now, but they are little consolation. They are no stand in for the famed banks of spent fish, emanating their musky gifts. They are nothing like watching a silver salmon jump over the pink-orange moon (Abram, n.d.). The tags hang like corpses, and flap of violence. They assure me the fish were here last year. I have heard this story again and again — this is where the streams ran thick, this is where the bears would come, this is where fisherman filled the bellies of their families for a full year, this is where first salmon ceremonies wedded human and fish in a teeming cosmos. So I am not happy to see them; they feel like another piece of evidence of impending extinction. And this is why I am here.
I have no shovel or native plant seedlings. I do not have a river restoration plan. I most certainly do not have buckets of hatchery smolts to release into the sea. Not that some of those aren’t necessary. I come inside of my body. Not to measure, but to kneel. To drop to my knees. To grieve. For the salmon, and what they have always called forth in us, across this blue green pearl, before myth was displaced by abstraction, before the spirit of the gift between humans and Earth was usurped. It is a potent day in my body, for not all my salmon stream pilgrimages have coincided with the once in a moon shedding of the potential for life from my womb. It is a gift I offer the river in ceremony, mystery to mystery, knitting human body and Earth body, intimate and unknown.
Today I offer myself at the redd, under this pink tag, where not a week past, a human witnessed the fish’s flap stirring the silt, building a place for eggs, milt. Singing, praying, loving, I add my blood. It darkens the water like India ink, then wisps into nothingness. It is an offering in deference to the mysteries of life and death. It is an oxygen gift to the eggs of a living breathing bleeding universe. It is a prayer from the heart of this wild human woman, grieving. It is the next line in the mythic poem I write with my body.
Typically, I perform this ceremony where I live. My apartment borders a rare patch of open creek in so-called Oakland, California. It has been over a year now that I have made my monthly gift, stanza by stanza, and come to know this wild place in the middle of the city. The river is under pavement for nearly all of its short length from Mountain View Cemetery to Lake Merritt. When the City planned to culvert for condominiums, the community in my neighborhood fought for its freedom (Mailman, 2012).
It is lined with oaks and bays and redwoods, as you might expect, with some elders and black walnuts and buckeyes. Squirrels have carried loquats in, or maybe humans planted them, along with the hawthorns and eucalyptus. Invasive black berries dominate, and English ivy chokes the trees. Trash is also a common species. There are hummingbird nests, a mallard couple that comes to mate each year, and many more birds whose names I do not know nor can I match them to their call. The habitat is defined by the meeting of the built and the wild. It was once even more of an edge ecosystem — west of it the city, and east, wilderness (Glen Echo Creek, 2020), a front line that civilization pushes deeper and deeper into the wild.
Two white men wade across the stream with long hooks, hunting for females. They nab one and club her to death, slice through her flesh to collect the bright orange roe she has carried, perhaps over one thousand miles, inland. 4,500 eggs. They saw off the coded wire tag in her head and bring it back to the lab. Another fishery must have better data. They do their clubbing and egg harvesting en masse, in a disassembly line, projected onto televisions. Children watch as if in a museum, as if crowding around a lynching, their sad faces paled of innocence.
Factories called hatcheries are industrial operations. 12 million production goal. 1% return. 90,000 to the fisherman. Automated piping and flow systems, temperature controls, all the right technology to maximize production. A year in California Oregon Washington Idaho — 280 million salmon. United States Canada Russia Korea Japan — 5 billion salmon. Human population is going up. If we want to eat salmon, this is what we must do. Measure, predict, control, leave nothing unknown. Club, slice, mix, dump, collect the bill. Meanwhile, the fish get smaller and few. The orca mother carries her dead child from full moon to new.
As you watch these scenes unfold in the documentary Artifishal (Murphy, 2019), you might shake your head in grief and dismay and wonder, “How did this happen? Where did we turn so wrong?” For Paul Shepard (2000), it was the wake of the Pleistocene.
As hunter-gatherers, humans were held in cosmologies of ambiguity, attentive and responsive to multifaceted landscapes that shifted in innumerable, often unpredictable ways. Our Pleistocene ancestors were not divided from the wild, but “seemed to inhabit the land body like a blood corpuscle” (Shepard, 2000, pg. 24), an organ playing its vital role in the ecosystem of an organism. While of course working with honed skill, the hunter nevertheless received food as a gift, as air to the lungs. The hunter encountered and participated with many forms and ways of life, embodying that multiplicity.
Wild habitat shifts in nuanced ways to the vagaries of weather, but farming has a stricter margin of error. The psychology of the farmer is built behind a border between worked and wild, what enhances yield and what causes its diminishment. This is a cosmology with humans and their cultivation at the center. Certainty comes too easily in this binary mind, and all that is mysterious and unknowable, forces beyond the self, are repressed, denied, clubbed, and burned, swallowed by the ever-advancing line. “What had been a complementary entity embracing friendly and dangerous parts in a unified cosmos, now takes on the colors of hostility and fragmentation” (Shepard, 2000, pg. 35).
Farming is a cosmology of control, wherein humans play not role but director. Rather than listening to and moving with the shifts of the landscape, farmers work the land into shape. Life is not a gift, but the result of hard work. The wild is for the taking, and has no value outside of this, lacking sovereignty and sentience. “In the ideology of farming, wild things are enemies of the tame; the wild Other is not the context but the opponent of ‘my’ domain” (Shepard, 2000, pg. 35). In the thousands of years since humans began farming we have created increasingly more fortified and complicated forms of taming based on simplified understandings of nature and fueled by a psyche experienced as ever more solely inside, and above — superior to the purely material, what we command, but do not love (Shepard, 1998).
Hatcheries and fish farms and stocking make much sense to this mind — if you want more fish, put more fish in. In the rush to fill bellies and pockets we have looked deeper into the microscope and right past the truth that ecosystems simply do not work that way (Shepard, 1998). Fisheries have been dumping fries and smolts into waters for hundreds of years, and the fish have only diminished. It is quite clear now, that every fish humans put in the water is a step closer to extinction. Modern science has proven it, although it is powerless against the money involved.
Of course, there is much of this wild planet that science does not understand, as David Abram (n.d.) so evocatively reminds us. How, for instance, do salmon make their way back to the very same river they were spawned in, after years in the vast sea? Or even more remarkably, monarchs migrate thousands of miles over several generations. How, in God’s name, does a great, great grandchild butterfly find the ground of her ancestors?
Europeans began hatcheries with no knowledge of evolutionary ecology. They mapped their agricultural understandings onto salmon country. “We’ve been stocking fish forever,” remarks a scientist in the film (Murphy, 2019). That “we” is European Americans, not the Indigenous who have coexisted with the salmon for tens of thousands of years, who were also not practicing academic biology.
Perhaps it is not so much what is known that matters, but the way of knowing. Despite the remarkable discoveries of modern science it is predominated by analogies of abstraction and mechanization, as if the butterflies somehow come outside of themselves to survey the landscape of their migration (Abram, n.d.). This incredible work must be accomplished with a type of machinery, the thinking goes, rather than a deep coherence with the living land, something so outside the modern human experience.
However, it makes more sense that the monarchs and salmon would make their way in the same fashion that blood travels into and out of the heart, with the inherence of millions of years of co-embodiment with this Earth being some call Gaia (Abram, n.d.). Listening, salmon shape their bodies to their natal streams, become perfectly attuned to the local ecology. It is not a feat of survey, but of embodied participation in place. It is an incredibly refined and complex knowledge. It is not control, but conversation. It is not dry and contained and separate, like numbers, like maps, like photographs, but wet with the blood mystery of life and death, with the smell of soil and the taste of minerals, with the hair raising awesomeness of this numinous wild world.
The ways we act and move and change, bear a great deal on whether we see the world through abstraction or if we are embodied participants. Understandings are woven into our lives by our representations and actions and the worlds they create (Shepard, 1998). What is being woven into our psyches by the rite of hooking a wire-tapped fish, bludgeoning her, and extracting her eggs?
That there is nothing beyond human control. That we have at last escaped the “dog-eat-dog-world” with our intellect and technology, with our mind that stands apart. That everything is an extension of our command. That the world is one of no Others (Shepard, 2000). This rite extracts mystery from my own womb. It distances humans from the conversation of life, further with every disturbing thwack. It displaces us and the salmon and all who depend on them, with abstract parameters (Casey, 2009). It is the way our farmer psyches act out the repressed truth that we, too, belong at the center of the table, all the while bringing us closer to that certain doom (Snyder, 2004).
Wildness is not the beautiful backdrop to our lives; it is the very basis of life (Snyder, 2004). Earth did not shape us to live apart from Them. Intimacy with death, with self-determined Others, with mysterious ebbs and flows of fish and rivers, are biological, developmental, and mythical requirements of our organism (Shepard, 1998). We depend on and live within a vast ecosystem that we can never fully understand. “For the hunter forager, this Me in a non-Me world is the most penetrating and powerful realization of life. The mature person in such a culture is not concerned with blunting that dreadful reality,” for instance, by forcing the wild salmon into domestication and extinction, “but with establishing lines of connectedness or relationship” (Shepard, 1998, pg. 34). These relationships come to make up the self, literally, psychically, spiritually and mythically.
The desert of the modern psyche, on the other hand, is a hall of mirrors, for the relationships we internalize are strong-armed domestications, forced tameness, and built environments (Shepard, 1998). We have come to see the whole world, and ourselves, as products of fabrication. To command an ecology without sovereignty is to extirpate our own sovereignty. To stock the lakes and rivers and sea crowds our innate intelligence, muddies our ability to perceive, and sours our capacity to respond to life. If we extinct the wild salmon we are driving to extinction this essential part of our humanness, the facet able to attune to our only home, to listen to and be shaped by our world, to be response-able to life.
Forgive me if I seem romantic. I am enraptured with this world. But to turn toward wildness is not a paradisal dream. It is to abandon the lie that we can stay safe and dry. It is to participate, open and vulnerable, naked in the light. To risk the clutch of the claw for the possibility of exquisite lovemaking, the potential to contribute to a rich cosmos. “To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being ‘realistic’. It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporary personal being” (Snyder, 2004, Loc. 230). The only way out is in (Shepard, 1998); you cannot be a conscientious objector (di Prima, 1990).
Wildness cannot be summed up or manufactured. It cannot be controlled. It is not interested in, and does not understand, production goals. Humans cannot feed it with fries and smolts, but only through myth-mediated participation with the storied land. Science will not suffice for humans, we meaning-making beings who stand. We do not need more data, a finer toothed comb. We need guidance in how to fulfill our role, how to “inhabit the land body like a blood corpuscle” (Shepard, 2000, pg. 24), how to feel ourselves as an Earth muscle. We need a mythology that draws us deeper into participation, that honors the truth of our implication, that holds Mystery at its foundation.
This mythology must story life as gift, not as resource or raw material. To place a price tag, to fix the variables, is to draw a line in the sand, to stand apart (Hyde, 1983). We do not abstract ourselves from what we hold most dear (Hyde, 1983). Participation is a gift. Widening the circle, stepping in, becoming of a piece, entangled in the web (Hyde, 1983).
To live in a myth of the gift is to act in faith, to trust in mystery rather than scarcity. It is faith that the profligacy of life will provide for us. That what makes the blackberry sweeter than it needs to be, and birdsong more beautiful than required, will also visit us (Eisenstein, n.d.). It is trust that we are not exempt or excluded from the awesome mysterious abundance of life, from the ability to travel thousands of miles with no map to the tree where our great, great grandparents hung in a chrysalis. To trust Earth as we trust our blood will return with each beat. To trust that there is innate intelligence in the body that knows how to listen and respond, and that is enough.
A gift is offered with no attachment to the return (Hyde, 1983). It is a response rooted in the truth that life is given (Eisenstein, n.d.). It is not manufactured or artificially inseminated. We do not earn it. Abundance comes from our participation, not manipulation, just as for the rest of life. It comes only if life remains a mystery, outside our grasp.
I have been listening, following my senses. Sniffing toward the role I play in my ecosystem, wherein the salmon and mythic participation are both threatened with extinction. They are of a piece. The wildness of the salmon is an expression of the wildness of our souls. We need wild Others to be ourselves. Salmons’ ability to come home and offer their ocean gifts to the next generation is the same journey we must take as humans, to feed a wild future. To restore wildness we must offer our own. We must come home to our belonging. I hold this truth in my body, in my blood.
We have created a built world, and swallowed it. “To be in a community of crops is to feel like a crop” (Shepard, wild, pg. 145). But we are wild inside. Our blood is the blood of the land, the rivers are our blood. I offer my blood to the river. To knit humans into wild participation. To dissolve the frontline protecting civilization. I offer my blood at the redd, the spawning ground of a world otherwise, building gift relations with the mythic living land. I return mystery to the river, what modernity has tried so hard to bludgeon and predict, to extract the wild from the fish. I will not give up my roe for a production goal. I will not abstract life from my blood, but use it to feed “treaties of affiliation” (Shepard, 1998, pg.34).
There is something in us, in our bodies, that feels our wider being, that knows our natal river and exactly what to do there. And not because doing it will bring more fish for herself, although it might, but because that is her role as an organ of life. I do not know what will come of my offering, and that is why it is a gift. And yet, I depend on what it feeds. I am following the hunger of myth and place (Shepard, 1998, pg. 145), for the humans’ sake.
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