What people have forgotten
is what every salmon knows.
~ Robert Clark
This past week I used a vacation day so that I could be a parent chaperone for a field trip for my twin daughters 3rd grade class. It turned out to be a rainy day, but seeing as how we desperately need the rain here in California there weren’t too many grumblings. Instead we wore hats, jackets and carried umbrellas. The first portion of our outing was to the Coleman National Fish Hatchery. The hatchery was established in 1942 to help curb the loss of natural salmon. Our guide was soft spoken Jack Blanke who had many interesting facts and figures to share with us during our tour through the hatchery and the two mile nature hike that followed along Battle Creek.
We observed the Chinook Salmon, as well as Steelhead Trout in the various holding tanks. The fish start out as tiny eggs and are fed and cared for until they are released. While they are young they have their adipose fin clipped and a wire clip is embedded into their nose. When such fish return to the hatchery years later they can be identified and it will provide biologists with useful information.
An unexpected part of the tour for myself and my daughters was the spawning room. Male and female salmon die naturally after they lay their eggs. The fish actually quit eating during their journey to the spawning pools and their bodies absorb their own intestines to survive. At the hatchery they speed up and mechanize the fertilization process. The process begins with an elevator full of water and fish rising up so that staff can more easily grab them. One of the workers then jams the fishes heads into a box with an automated hammer, that is intended to kill them quickly. A number of the fish do not die from the hammer and instead are beaten over the head with a club. All of this took place while we watched. It was after they were “dead” that a pair of workers would pick up both a female and a male fish and essentially force out the females eggs and the males milt. One worker injects the female fish with a device that blows air into her, forcing her eggs to come flowing out, while the another worker presses on the male to eject his milt. The eggs and milt mix in a basin. The dead fish were then dropped down chutes, and then routed to a refrigerated trailer sitting outside the building, which would later be transported to a processing plant. The meat is primarily distributed to food banks and prisons. Local Native American tribes in the area also have rights to put in requests to transport whole fish from the hatchery free of cost.
I personally was relieved to leave the spawning room. As a person who gave up eating meat and adopted a vegan diet six years ago, seeing animals, even fish killed, was not a pleasant experience. My daughter Maya was especially sensitive to it too and her teacher tried to explain that the fish would have died anyways. That sound reasonable, though iI kept thinking about the difference between laying ones eggs and dying peacefully in a river or being killed by a slam to the head with a hammer or a club. I tried to make some peace with it by looking at the bigger picture and how the hatchery is responsible for hatching over 13 million fish, and in doing so helps to ensure the populations of salmon and steelhead continue to thrive.
If I haven’t bored you to tears with the account of the salmon tour and you are still bravely reading on I want to share with you an essay from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. Not having read from this book in awhile I opened it and flipped to the latter dates of October. I have to wonder if it is synchronicity or coincidence that is just so happens his essay for October 30th called The Art of Facing Things is about salmon. Maybe this particular essay wouldn’t have caught my attention if not for the recent outing, but I decided there might be a message in it that I should take note of more closely and I wanted to share it with you.
“Salmon have much to teach us about the art of facing things. In swimming up waterfalls, these remarkable creatures seem to defy gravity. It is an amazing thing to behold. A closer look reveals a wisdom for all beings who want to thrive.
What the salmon somehow know is how to turn their underside–from center to tail–into the powerful current coming at them, which hits them squarely, and the impact then launches them out and further up the waterfall; to which their reaction is, again, to turn their underside back into the powerful current that, of course, again hits them squarely; and this successive impact launches them further out and up the waterfall. Their leaning into what they face bounces them further and further along their unlikely journey.
From a distance, it seems magical, as if these might fish are flying, conquering their element. In actuality, they are deeply at one with their element, vibrantly and thoroughly engaged in a compelling dance of turning-toward-and-being-hit-squarely that moves them through water and air to the very source of their nature.
In terms useful to the life of the spirit, the salmon are constantly faithful in exposing their underside to the current coming at them. Mysteriously, it is the physics of this courage that enable them to move through life as they know it so directly. We can learn from this very active paradox; for we, too, must be as faithful to living in the open if we are to stay real in the face of our daily experience. In order not to be swept away by what the days bring, we, too, must find a way to lean into the forces that hit us so squarely.
The salmon offer us a way to face truth without shutting down. They show us how leaning into our experience, though we don’t like the hit, moves us on. Time and again, though we’d rather turn away, it is the impact of being revealed, through our willingness to be vulnerable, that enable us to experience both mystery and grace.”
- Sit quietly and meditate on the last time you opened yourself to the life coming at you.
- In recalling this, try to focus on three things; the way that opening yourself caused you to unfold, they way that being hit squarely changed your life position, and where leaping like a salmon landed you.
- Breathe steadily, and invite the lessons of opening, being changes, and landing into your heart.
- Breathe slowly, and realize that you are in this process now.
- Relax and turn the belly of your heart toward the day.
Here is a brief video of the salmon attempting to jump and vault a controlled waterfall. You can excitedly hear children cheering on the salmon as the launch themselves. We kept hoping one would make it. What we finally learned is that at this time of year the volume of water is increased to such a level that the salmon will never make it to the upper level. This forces them to look for an alternate route, which happens to be a man-made fish ladder that directs them into the hatchery pools. During the non-spawning season the water flow is reduced and fish can then naturally swim up and down stream.
I also ponder some additional questions and ask them of you too.
Is there anything that you are avoiding or not willing to face?
When things are difficult and challenging how do you handle them?
Do you think your methods and ways of dealing (or not dealing)
with challenges are healthy for you
or could you benefit from learning some new coping skills?
Suggested reading – Ten Things to Do When Your Life Falls Apart