Heather Durham is a naturalist and nature writer who holds an MS in Environmental Biology from Antioch New England University and an MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. She lives and writes in a feral river valley in the foothills northeast of Seattle. Learn more at heatherdurhamauthor.com.
Earth to Earth
When bigleaf maple leaves larger than your face turn yellow with bronze fungal spots, it is time. When the quiet, lackadaisical songbirds of late summer join in fervent, chittering mixed-species flocks, trembling the cedars, it is time. When the rains return for real and the forests won’t dry until next summer, when licorice ferns green and unfurl and mushrooms of muted reds and purples appear out of dead wood overnight, it is time.
They are coming home, to die.
I come to the river to watch. A silver streak in the pebbled shallows. A crimson flash that seems a trick of the eye, or the water. But no – a fin there. A whitewater tail swish, just there. Chinook, also called King, salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean to spawn.
One September morning I stood not on a riverbank, but next to a rectangular holding tank containing a writhing swarm of Clackamas River Chinook. I pulled oversized rain gear and galoshes over my polyester park ranger uniform and awaited instructions from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hatchery technicians I’d volunteered to assist.
You want me to do what??
I reached in to the steel box of river water and slid a hand along a smooth, spotted coppery-red body longer than my arm, then squinted as his tail lashed water at my face. A deep white gash adorned his side like a medal, reminding me that he was one of only two or three of his parents’ three thousand or more eggs that had survived to adulthood, and survived the journey a thousand miles and six years in the open ocean, then back up three rivers home again. Oh the places you’ve been.
I grabbed tight, with both hands. One around his thrashing tail, the other straining to grip the thick slippery belly just behind the pectoral fins. Pulled the gasping King from the water and struggled to hold him still as he writhed. He whipped his head and tail into a rigid bow and just as quickly snapped back the other direction. Fearing I would drop him, I kneeled and bear-hugged that fifty-pound sea creature to my chest.
When I’d gained control I stood and held the fish out away from me, placed his nose in a notched pedestal, and held on. One of the technicians raised a metal baseball bat and brought it down, thunk, on his head. The salmon went limp.
They come home to die.
Not this death, I knew, but the still rapid and no less violent death that comes from a journey so arduous it literally takes the life out of a body no longer acclimatized to fresh water, a body physically beaten, starving, and which, if it hasn’t already become prey, always dies within days after spawning. Because that is the natural cycle. Life begets life. These lives began in the hatchery, in human hands. They end there too. There’s no spawning habitat in a cement pool.
I told myself this as I smiled and joked with the hatchery technicians and tried to ignore my hands shaking. At the end of the day after I’d showered but still stank, when I still shook, I realized they weren’t the tremors of discomfort with helping kill fish.
I was giddy.
I was electrified by my intimacy with the mighty Chinook in that moment when life becomes death, an intimacy that no books, experts, or naturalist training could teach me. An intimacy that my acute observation skills could not show me. The intimacy of death, like sex, means to know an other in the deepest, most visceral sense. Hunters know this. Murderers too, I imagine.
Many of the fish I helped kill that day at the hatchery had their eggs or sperm harvested to make more hatchery salmon; then they went on to feed people. Others were trucked back to the open river and left to rot, to feed everything else. Though we may be greedy animals who take more than our share, we are learning, or maybe, remembering. Remembering that no lives are lived in isolation. That some lives reach farther than others, and continue to ripple outward even in death.
Salmon who fight their way home do more than just pass on their DNA. Salmon carcasses, whether digested by other animals or decomposed into rivers bring ocean nutrients like nitrogen, carbon, sulfur and phosphorous that fertilize riverside plants and feed insect larvae. They in turn support entire river ecosystems, including juvenile salmon. All of which nourish forests far from rivers, down to mushrooms on cedars thick with insectivorous songbirds. Death begets life.
Mary Oliver asks us, in “The Summer Day”: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? I ask, on a fall day, what might we do after that?
If I could, I would not seal myself in a box, nor burn my body to ashes and dust. If I could, I would give myself to the river, to be torn apart by eagles and bears, to be nibbled by fingerlings. Soaked up by cedars or washed out to sea. To discover a new slant on intimacy.
I am not alone in this. “Green” or natural burials are becoming more common in the west, and for more than just environmental reasons. Instead of chemical embalming and hermetically sealed steel boxes, shrouds and cardboard. Instead of urns interred in marble mausoleums, ashes thrown to the wind or waves. Or planted with seeds to grow into trees. I would prefer to feed a cougar or a murder of crows, but barring such luck, planted with a cedar sapling in an Oregon riverside forest would do.
But I’m not just talking about my body. We all more or less accept the idea that our physical bodies stick around here, dust to dust. Whether we attempt to seal ourselves from the earth or not, the earth will eventually take us back. But what about the invisible parts, our life forces, our vital energy, or yes, our souls that might too pass on?
No matter how secular your beliefs, you naturally wonder more about this as you grow older, as you watch loved ones die. Old age, accidents, cancer. Suicides. When someone wants more than anything else to be gone from here, where do they go?
What if an afterlife exists, but as multiple religions seem to suggest, somewhere else, up in the proverbial sky or in some other dimension? Maybe somewhere with other human souls but without the warmth of our sun, the ocean breeze or rain-soaked earth, somewhere without trees, rivers, birds, bugs, or salmon?
No matter how pleasant it might be, no matter how blissfully serene, I don’t want to go there. Earth is the place I want to stay. Whether that means I come back as another awkward and struggling human or a battered and struggling Chinook is no matter. As long as I come back. When I die, I don’t want to leave. I want to come home.
It’s fall again; time to return to the river. I came in hopes of spying that silver flash I can still feel in my hands, against my body. I’m looking for life, but finding none, I follow a familiar smell to the source. There, in the shade of a yellowing cottonwood on river-smoothed stones. Eyes already pecked out, dulled white teeth in a broken jaw, battle scars on a sleek body longer than my arm. A raven watches, nearby.