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Bring Them Home

April 23, 2018


(Photo: Philip Lay)


Just because we in the east don't get a run like this one doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention. We used to get sea-run brook trout on the Atlantic side of this country. If you search for images of "sea-run brook trout," however, you wont find any. Instead, you'll get a plethora of pictures of people holding a dead fish, nearly dead fish, or living fish over water. Runs pictured like the one above just aren't a part of our seasonal life here in the east. Not anymore.


It's easy to take what we have for granted. It really is. You can sum everything up to science if you like, say "well, that's how they're made; that's what they do," but life really is so much more than that. It's the continuous sum of infinite iterations of adaptations. It's learning made into flesh and bone, heartwood and phloem, cephalopod and nautilus, anadromous salmonid and her sanctuary between two worlds--freshwater and salt--that is estuary. 


I'd like to share with you an excerpt from Robin Wall Kemmerer's book Braiding Sweetgrass. She is a Native American professor of ecology and botany in upstate New York and a caretaker of the earth.


If you are a lover of this earth and her beings, especially her fish beings, this one's for you:


Far out beyond the surf they felt it. Beyond the reach of any canoe, half a sea away, something stirred inside of them, an ancient clock of bone and blood that said, "It's time." Silver-scaled body its own sort of compass needle spinning in the sea, the floating arrow turned toward home. From all directions they came, the sea a funnel of fish, narrowing their path as they gathered closer and closer, until their silver bodies lit up the water, redd-mates sent to sea, prodigal salmon coming home.


The coastline here is scalloped with countless coves, clothed in fog banks, and cut with rainforest rivers, as easy place to lose your way, where landmarks can vanish in the fog. The spruce are heavy on the shore, their black cloaks hiding signs of home. The elders speak of lost canoes that strayed in the wind and landed on a sand spit not their own. When the boats are too long gone, their families go down to the beach to light a blaze among the driftwood, a beacon to sing them home to safety.  When the canoes finally approach, laden with food from the sea, the hunters are honored in dances and songs, their dangerous journey repaid by faces alight with gratitude.


And so it is too that the people make ready for the arrival of their brothers who bring food in the canoe of their bodies. The people watch and wait. The women sew one more row of dentalia shells upon their finest garments for the dance. They pile alder wood for the welcome feast and sharpen huckleberry skewers. While they mend nets, they practice the old songs. But still their brothers do not come.The people go down to the shore, looking out to sea for a sign. Perhaps they have forgotten. Perhaps they wander, lost at sea, uncertain of their welcome with those they left behind.


The rains are late, the water low, the forest trails turned dusty and dry and covered in a steady rain of yellow spruce needles. The prairies up on the headland are crisp and brown, without even fog to moisten them. 


Far out, beyond the pounding surf, beyond the reach of canoes, in the inky darkness that swallows light,  they move as one body, a school, turning neither east nor west until they know.


So he walks the path at nightfall with a bundle in his hand. Into a nest of cedar bark and twisted grass he lays the coal and feeds it with his breath. It dances and then subsides. Smoke pools darkly as the grasses melt to black and then erupt into flame, climbing one stem and then another. All around the meadow, others do the same, setting in the grass a crackling ring of fire that quickens and gathers, white smoke curling upward in the fading light, breathing into itself, panting across the slope until its convective gasp sets the night alight. A beacon to bring their brothers home.


They are burning the headland. Flames race on the wind until they are stopped by the wet green wall of forest. Fourteen hundred feet above the surf it blazes, a tower of fire: yellow, orange, and red, a massive flare. The burning prairie billows smoke, roiling white with undersides of salmon pink in the darkness. They mean for it to say,"Come, come, flesh of my flesh. My brothers. Come back to the river where your lives began. We have made a welcome feast in your honor."


Out at sea, beyond where the canoes can go, there is a pinprick of light on a pitch-black coast, a match in the darkness, flickering, beckoning below the white plume that drifts down the coast to mingle with the fog. A spark in the vastness. The time has come.As one body they turn to the east, toward the shore and the river of home. When they can smell the water of their natal stream, they pause in their journey and rest on the slackening tide. Above them all, on the headland, the sparkling tower of fire reflects on the water, kissing the reddened wave tops and glinting off silver scales.


By sunrise the headland is gray and white, as if dusted by an early snow. A cold drift of ash falls on the forest below and the wind carries the tang of burnt grass. But no one notices, for they are all standing along the river singing a welcome, a song of praise as the food swims up the river, fin to fin. The nets stay on the shore; the spears still hang in the houses. The hook-jawed leaders are allowed to pass, to guide the others and to carry the message to their upriver relatives that the people are grateful and full of respect. 


The fish course by the camp in great throngs, unmolested as they make their way upstream. Only after four days of fish have moved safely by is the First Salmon taken by the most honored fisher and prepared with ritual care.  It is carried to the feast in great ceremony on a cedar plank in a bed of ferns. And then they feast on the sacred foods--salmon, venison, roots, and berries--in sequence for the places in the watershed. they celebrate the water that connects them all in a ritual passing of the cup. They dance in long lines, singing thanks for all that is given. The salmon bones are places back in the river, their heads facing upstream so that their spirits may follow the others. They are destined to die as we are all destined to die, but first they have bound themselves to life in an ancient agreement to pass it on, to pass it on. In so doing, the world itself is renewed.


Only then the nets are set out, the weirs are put in place, and the harvest begins. Everyone has a task. An elder councils the young one with a spear, "Take only what you need and let the rest go by and the fish will last forever." When the drying racks are full with winter food, they simply stop fishing.




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