Our collective impulse to domesticate land, birds, cattle, sheep, and other animals seems to be among the most powerful in human nature, so it's no wonder we responded to disappearing salmon with hatcheries.
IN THE EARLY 1990S, our local salmon restoration group undertook a stock rehabilitation project to rebuild the summer chum runs on two east Olympic Peninsula streams, Salmon and Chimacum creeks, in Washington state. In September, fisheries agents trap chum spawners in a weir and take a percentage of the eggs. These eggs are "eyed up" at the Hurd Creek Hatchery in nearby Sequim and then turned over to us to incubate in a small hatchery we built on a tributary of Salmon Creek.
By protecting the eggs, we can boost the egg-to-fry survival by almost 100 percent and hopefully build up the run. We watch the eggs until they hatch, and then feed the fry to a certain size and release them to their sojourn in the sea. Five volunteers alternate checking eggs and fry daily from November to late April. We are committed to this project for at least ten years. We hope to rebuild the Salmon Creek stock first, and then transfer Salmon Creek fish to the chum-barren Chimacum system.
One clear January day I was at our little homemade hatchery checking water temperature and flow, alert for the early hatch that sometimes occurs in a warm winter. I lifted the lid on the incubation barrel to check on the 46,000 eggs, the progeny of twenty wild chum hens, supported by black screened trays and vibrating and rolling delicately in the smooth rhythmic shade of the water flow. It is always a little spooky peering into this watery womb, and I leaned down to study the eggs' opalescent glow. I was trying to decipher what the subtle changes in egg color meant; I was wondering at the dark, sentient density of their eyes. These eggs can see, and that day I had the uncanny sensation that two eggs in particular were watching me. They followed my motions, rolling and twisting to "see" me-it was unnerving. As I closed the incubator lid and began to write up the daily report, I had the eerie intuition that those eggs were the eyes of the watershed, venerable and rejuvenant in the same moment. It was as if 8,000 years of watershed experience-the bio-logic, the patient wisdom of Salmon Creek-were coiled in those two vigilant eggs.
What better agents than ourselves to revive our regions' salmon runs? We are the natural kith to their kin. We marvel at the miracle of their return, argue over their health, and rise early to troll and mooch for them in the dark, testy weather of the North Pacific. We ceremoniously savor their firm yet delicate flesh, subtly cooked in a myriad of local and family recipes. In spices, smokes, and sauces, salmon is the soul food of the North Pacific. And while they delight our senses, the salmon also represent us in a profound and heartfelt way. They are the precious mettle of our watersheds. They embody our home places. Salmon are the deep note of our dwelling here, the silver soul of this green bell-steelhead, sockeye, coho, chum, pinks, and kings.
But be warned against restoration romance. Salmon restoration is a paradox more salted with irony than leavened with heroics. Because we assume responsibility does not mean we're in control or will succeed. The salmon know what they're doing. The mind of the "leaper" is tuned to geologic time, and our entropic, superheated civilization may be a minor perturbation in its world. I can imagine salmon of the twentieth millennium spawning in the moonlit rubble of Seattle's Kingdome. Perhaps the question for salmon is how big will civilization grow before it consumes itself? For us the question is, can we get back in sync with the salmon cycle in time to bank our fires in a suitable hearth? Restoration work is really reinhabitation-community building with all the "neighbors."
Revisiting the history of the salmon's decline in our neighborhoods is depressing, but stream work and habitat revival is full of high-spirited comradeship and the small epiphanies of recognition and connection that bloom when what you've done actually works. I recall the chance witness of a coho parr leaping into a culvert we laddered for fish passage two summers ago, the glee with which we greeted one small fry we found in a rill we reconnected to its main stream, and the delight of finding a couple of cutthroat fingerlings nestled in the scour pool behind one of the boulders we'd placed in a stream that was downcutting because it had lost structure (wood and stone) and couldn't dissipate its energy. Discrete, vivid moments like these weave us into place. They reconnect us to the complexity and wonder of the natural world, rekindle our imaginations, and edge us away from the unconscious thrall of consumption and back into the quickened drama of creation and community.
Restoration then becomes restorying the landscape with tales of its essential beauty.
Excerpted from Reaching Home: Pacific Salmon, Pacific People, Copyright ©1994, with permission Alaska Northwest Books, an Imprint of Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company.