The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.
~Richard Bach (“Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah”)
She seems to be languishing, a body that was once full of vitality is now spent and she is exhausted, too weary to stay upright. I stand by her side, watching and wondering what to do, what to think. Standing mid-stream, water flowing all around, I see her struggle against the current and then succumb to its power and downstream she goes. I watch as she is pushed by the rushing water, knowing that she will never swim this far upstream again. She doesn’t have the strength. This is likely her last day and her tail, well-worn and white from digging redds (gravel nest), indicates that she has already spawned and will soon die. What then?
We are taught that death is something to fear not something to celebrate and we often act as though it is not natural. There are times when we admit that it is inevitable but we still seem to believe that it is something that will only occur in the future. But what if there is no future, only the eternal now? What then?
I think of my mother, dead now more than four years, whose birthday it is (February 1st). She would have been 69 years old, far older than the three year old salmon inhabiting the creek with me today. I remember being with her during her final days, how thin and frail she was but there was still a sparkle in her eyes, when the pain wasn’t too great. So too with this salmon – still facing upstream and swimming against the current (a sparkle in its flesh) – until she can no more, and then letting go and floating downstream. Is this what happened with my mom, did she let go and float on? What then?
Farther upstream I meet a salmon carcass, bright red spawning colors and monstrous kype (hook-like tip of jaw) indicating a male. My field partner and I collect it and notice its bright eyes. It did not die long ago. We take our field measurements, mark it with a jaw tag and then put it back where we found it before continuing to wade upstream. We soon find another carcass, this time a female and haul her out of the water for measurements. Her mouth and gills are covered with caddisflies, who, protected within their stick and leaf homes, are devouring her skin and flesh. This very flesh, full of important marine nutrients, becomes caddisfly, bear, huckleberry and redwood. The caddisfly will soon be eaten by this mother salmon’s young fry that in another three years may be right back here again, continuing this cycle of life and death. Each nourishes the other in an endless dance that we need not be afraid of. We are in each other just as salmon and caddisfly, bear and redwood are in each other. This ever-flowing river of arising and passing, passing and arising will lift us free.
By David LaFever