Going wild was something no one would have predicted for me. I mean, my baby album stood on the family-room shelf alongside my mother’s master’s thesis on “The Effect of X-rays on Drosophila” and my father’s doctoral dissertation on “The Effects of Hypophysectomy on the Adrenal Glands in Rats.”
And while you can take a girl out of her urban academic upbringing, you can’t take the…well…let’s just say that if you’re curious about the river imagery in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I can explain with professorial insight how each time Huck and the slave Jim leave the freedom of the river, they fall prey to the hypocrisy and brutality of society.
I won many accolades for my teaching. So when I left the urban academic world and moved to a small rural town on the Oregon coast, I thought, okay, I have research skills and a ladder…how hard can it be to caulk my own windows. After learning I wouldn’t just be squirting goop out of a tube but laying a bead of silicone, I bought a spiffy orange caulk gun and got to work. Nothing leaked that winter—and it was only when standing within ten feet of the house that you might have thought the place had been weatherized by chimps.
Then came the storm that took out power and water for a week. This is it, I kept muttering over my camp stove, I’m going back to the city. And huddled in blankets, I pictured myself at home in a world of poetry, films, theater, lectures, concerts, museums, and municipal amenities.
However, you can’t step in the same river twice. Or to be more precise, living in a small seaside town had ruined me for life in a concrete world teeming with traffic and smelling of smog. So I bought a generator and a wood stove and tried to make common cause with the question: what am I doing here outside the mainstream of who I am?
In the tradition of all self-respecting academics caught in the wilderness between reason and faith, I decided the antidote to perishing was publishing. And turning my quandary inside out, I began with an air of destiny to explore the philosophical divide between urban and rural.
I’d done some preliminary investigation my first summer here after getting stopped alongside a dairy pasture for a repaving project. Dozens of Holsteins were lined up, watching the steamroller flattening the asphalt, rapt and chewing their cud like ladies at a cineplex matinee.
I was stunned to find that up close, a cow was the size of my pickup. When several noticed me staring, they wandered over and mooed. Charmed by their big dark cow eyes and ears sticking out like giant mittens, I mooed back. Here was a side of milk, I’d never considered. By the end of that day, I was ruminating over a stack of library books detailing the marvels of a stomach that could turn grass to milk and the history of bovine ancestors who’d been sacred to nearly every ancient civilization around the globe. Sacred, that is, until around 800 A.D. when the business of cheese turned European cows into economic entities.
Pursuing my investigation, I wandered behind the supermarket shelf marked DAIRY to follow the milk to its sacred source. The quest took me from my bed at 3 a.m. and over dark winding roads to a flood of light illuminating a farmhouse. Bundled in wool and fleece, I went out into a night old and cold as the first night a woman climbed a shadowy slope to bring in a cow for milking.
I looked up at our Milky Way spilling across the sky, flooding the pasture with an ethereal white light and thought: Milk—the one thing all mammals have in
common. Milk—our metaphor for human kindness.
Suddenly, the night began to breathe big misty breaths. The starlight congealed into patches of white and shadow, a giant jigsaw puzzle undulating toward, around me, resolving itself into a lumbering herd of Holsteins. Curiosity by theton crowded in. I was trapped in an immovable mass of cow flesh and bone, sinewy mysteries of myth and milk, muscle and mothers and misty moisty nuzzling muzzles sniffing out the small stranger in their midst. Rescued by the farmer, I was giddy and trembling from being touched by the power of myth become real.
Later in the day, I saw a newborn calf drop like a rock to the barn floor, bloody and slimy with afterbirth. The mother licked the tiny one clean and nuzzled it into life. The calf stood up rickety but so radiant it seemed illuminated from within.
I beheld the great Norse cow licking the Frost Giants into existence.
“A bull,” the farmer said, resigned to the fifty-fifty chance.
The next day, the small useless one would be boarded on a truck.
Where? And what for?
Baloney, the farmer said.
There are realities in the processing of myths: It takes one and a half gallons of milk to produce a single gallon of ice cream. An average cow produces eight gallons a day. And ten tons of manure a year. So it is that where grass once grew for grazing, we now have corn and corporate barns where with the help of hormones and antibiotics cows live short but increasingly productive lives on concrete, milked by robots that track their feed and butter fat. The robots want cows with perfect teats. The imperfect are trucked off. Manure is digested by machines to keep it from polluting streams. And the price of baloney remains relatively cheap.
“Look up,” the faller told me, “the fall begins at the top.”
The spruce was older than me and more than a hundred feet taller. The forester assigned to be my guide said they’d saved the biggest cut for me.
Agile as a leprechaun, the faller leapt over logs and branches while explaining how the tree would fall and where. After holding out the blade of his chain saw for me to feel, he pulled the starter rope, and cut a wedge lickety-split about two feet from the ground on the side the tree would fall. The saw made a droning metal music out of tune with nature and itself. Sawdust poured from the tree like water. “I think we should step back,” my forester suggested as the faller whirred off the lower branches on his way around to begin the slice that would set the fall in motion.
In less than a minute, the blade was through. The top of the spruce began to waver. Slowly the tree fell like a mind lost in some different frame of time. Following a crack like nothing I’d ever heard, the tree hit the ground with a finality that shuddered outward through the Earth and upward through my feet.
As a guest, I was required by the moment to speak. Rephrasing my grief for a life brought down so easily, I praised the process. I did not lie. There was an art and precision to it. There was also the fact that I would now return to a home built of wood.
It would take this tree and four like it to fill a log truck, the forester said. And three truck loads to build a modest single-story dwelling. Twelve for a two-story high-beamed designer beauty.
As a remembrance, the faller gave me a small cut from the hinge, that sharp spiky edge where the tree broke away from itself. In my hand, the spiky cut with its sawed-off bottom had the appearance of a trophy that kids win just for playing.
“How much will you get for the tree?” I asked the forester.
He slid out his calculator to figure the cost per board feet. “$250,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, surprised by how little.
The young man’s brow furrowed. He recalculated and confirmed, “Two-fifty.”
The wilderness between the worlds of myth and money had long since become cliché. And so too my eco musings. With my plan to publish perishing, I sought solace in a forest dripping with lichen, trees reflecting upon themselves in a cold clear stream.
Once the streams ran so thick with forty, fifty, seventy-pound salmon that mere mortals could walk, it seemed, on water. For millennia, the first people danced and sang to welcome the returning fish and took only what they needed.
It was watching a grainy black and white film in junior-high that I first beheld salmon swimming upriver from the sea to the same gravelly stream beds where they’d hatched. First there was one salmon leaping at a rushing white falls, then scores of them, light and effortless as shadows, flinging themselves at the watery turbulence, quivering tail fins propelling them up and over the tumbling water and on to the quiet pools surrounded by magical forest of trees so big you couldn’t get your arms around them.
But this film was the story of a nation that equated Providence with Progress and Power. Footage showed salmon stacked across loading docks of canneries to the height of a man. An annual harvest of 25 million pounds was, we learned, what made the Chinook salmon king.
In the time it took me to learn otherwise, dams made mighty falls go slack. Rivers warmed. Salmon swimming downstream were ground up in turbines. Salmon swimming upstream hit the wall. Accommodations were made. As were fortunes. The drumming and songs of the first people faded. And the wild was diminished to those days when a storm knocked out the hydropower.
As I sat there on a log along the forest stream, an emerald light filled the space between the trees and seemed to lay a comforting hand on me.
Two salmon appeared in the stream like news from an old and forgotten land.The fish were old, come home from the sea to the stream where they were born to spawn and die. He, once silvery with a splash of rosy red, had grown black and splotchy. A ray of morning light caught his last crimson dash. Her iridescence had faded to a spotty yellowish gray. Shreds of the fish she once was drifted from her mouth like tatters from a worn and faded prom dress. In a watery ballet, they floated together over a gravel bed. Mouths opening and closing, they breathed what felt to me like a wordless tale of their wild and watery lives as fry grown into smolt. Ah, the currents of adventure that carried them far from home. They had so much magic then, alchemists extraordinaire transforming themselves from fresh to salt water fish, swimming off for a life at sea in schools of fins and food, traveling thousands of sea miles up through the Bering Strait and back, four years, it could have been more, evading predators. The odds against return were high—fighting their way upstream against tooth and claw and net, living off their fat and the scent of home guiding them back to this watery bed.
The stream riffled with anticipation, then the two fish, side by side, stopped moving, mouths open wide, eyes seeing something so wild and pure that for one
holy and orgiastic moment the stream stopped flowing, the trees stopped growing, and the heart of all creation revealed itself to me in a milky cloud of myth flooding the gravel bed with roe and milt.
With her tail, she thrashed the gravel to cover the eggs. He drove away a hungry trout. They floated. Their breathing slowed. I slipped quietly from the bank, knowing that they would die and there was nothing I could ever write about this. Except to lay down my thoughts in tatters. For who I’d become was also old and dying from a time when everything that once was sacred is slipping from the fingers of my nation.
The divide, I determined later, is not between town and country, but between myth and process.
Fish hatcheries were introduced in the mid nineteenth century. The annual cycle of raising and releasing hatchery fish promised to maintain and supplement the dwindling populations of wild fish. I got a peek into one of the shallow metal drawers stacked one upon another where tiny salmon with their yoke sacks are raised in safety. Under careful monitoring, they grow from fry to smolt to be released with parental devotion to live wild and mature at sea.
As youngsters, their adipose fins were clipped so those who fish can take them and release the wild. I once clipped fins and learning that fish are drawn back home by smell wondered if somewhere a small school might be searching in despair for something smelling of books and cats, merlot and me.
Here, my knowledge of the process ended. Which was why on a lovely November morning, I drove upstream to a hatchery with the hope of finding a process transfigured into myth.
Returning hatchery fish encounter a barrier across the falling water of their home stream. Leaping to no avail, they are forced up a passage into outdoor holding tanks.
Even before I’d stepped from my car, I heard a thumping. Not of drums. But steady. Repetitive. Like a machine. I was greeted by an affable group of men and women dressed for their watery task—their love of fishing, trees, and the mission, clear and vibrant as the stream.
The process took shape in a kaleidoscope of images and felling: A man hip-deep in the holding tank lays a wriggling fish on cement. A second man whacks it with an aluminum bat—the thumping. The fish keep wriggling. Are they truly dead to feeling? A third volunteer slits the fish’s tail end to bleed it out. Then, someone lifts the fish over a white plastic container to wring out the female’s eggs or milk the males of sperm. Squeezed and milked, each fish is laid flat on a metal plate outfitted with a guillotine that slices off its head. The body is then tossed in a bin of carcasses to be returned to the stream.
Prior to the guillotining, a sensor determines if a tag had been implanted in the fish’s head. If so, the fish is weighed and measured, it’s fluids retrieved for study by a university biologist, the data recorded over the years for purposes no one can explain.
I picked up a stray translucent salmon colored egg from the cement. The size of a pea, the stuff of a fish never to be dispersed between my fingers.
“A wild female,” someone calls. She’s been clubbed. Perhaps in the flurry of process. But she won’t calm down. Even after being slit and bled, she flips herself off the guillotine. Someone lifts her back and holds her steady for the blade. The head falls. Still the fish won’t quit and on her way through the air to the carcass bin twitches as with some ancient wisdom for leaping upstream past every act of progress known to man…
When the backwater of a dam silenced the great falls that had echoed against the rocks for millennia, the first people whose ancestors had fished there since time began could not sleep for the silence. Fifty years later, the state legislature held a session to grieve the error and pass a bill finally giving the salmon nation the village they’d been promised in exchange for the damming of their tribal soul.
To judge is wrong. What’s been done cannot be undone.
We’ve all been hatched, I think, from a system that’s gone wrong, removing us from the land, teaching us the skills of power and control that serve only to estrange us from the part of us that will always remain wild—and could, if we let it, humble us with the knowledge us that every process known to progress, be it art or law or science, has impediments akin to sin.
How is anyone to find redemption, except by trying to retain what’s left through preservation strategies. Hatchery anglers raise fish to save the wild and in the process provide fresh salmon to the food bank and put wonder, rods, and tackle into the hands of the disabled. To keep from perishing, I will write my little tales of the lost that can be found only by learning how to weather life outside the mainstream.