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December 21, 2006

photo of river

Fish On?

story and photo by BENNETT BARTHELEMY

There I was at river's edge, casting blindly into the sunrise of an early fall, line spinning off the spool to the tug of a gentle riffle, when it happened. Hooked into a beautiful grandfather salmon, I was pulled off balance and fell. Fully submerged in the icy pool I gasped for the impossible breath and filled my lungs. The pole was gone, traded for a new set of eyes. Eyes that could see clearly into the murky shadows of the past. I had become the salmon.

A dream? No, a nightmare -- recurring nightmares. Through indifference and unimaginable cruelty, and with my own immutable resilience I swam on, lived on through five lifetimes and five deaths. I swam with the salmon, as a salmon, witness to a past that was nearly unfathomable, but so real and so painful. I was afraid to ponder how it would end, so I finally gave in and traded my terrestrial reality for the aquatic, following a path of renewed memory and consciousness.

My path self-evident, I enter the mouth, destination known. I enjoy the push from the gentle current -- past nets yet to be dipped and into further bends of the Klamath. Unspoken understanding between fish and human, and those living upriver, a shared and honored life, to spawn and nourish all. Salmon, so thick we compete with the water for dominance. We are everywhere on this path, this early fall, but now I see them. Salmon, dead, all around ... An incomplete cycle cut short by a desire to control, to own. The river, lifeblood of the land polluted by poison. We die as the bison. No more first salmon ceremonies to welcome us. Only songs for the dead, and even those are being stifled. Taking of salmon lives helps fulfill a manifest destiny, no longer salmon but a violent expression of another's attempt at dominion.

I enter the mouth, destination known. Happily swallowed along a path of welcome memory, into the folds of current, renewed womb of continuity. Swimming on, we are a determined few with fond memory of rock and riffle. Then choked by silt and detritus, gravel bars gone -- a premature burial. We are lost in the exact places of our birth -- no genetic memory to recover and share. I die, blinded and forgotten by way of a single-minded greed of those who harvest trees or minerals. Not salmon, but another casualty of short-sightedness and ignorance.

I enter the mouth, finally on my sheltered path beyond the blue abyss. A sort of homecoming -- so many nets! We swim as always, bold and strong, but there are much fewer of us this year. Running the gauntlet we swim together and die together. So many caught, so efficient, so complete. We die for those who fish -- their right, right or wrong. No longer salmon but political statement.

I enter the mouth -- heated contrast to the cold infinity of the sea. I swim on, hopeful, yet aware of change. Onward, to my place, I pass many -- hundreds, thousands of salmon dead. I am so hot, so tired. I list to the side, losing ground -- again and again. I can't go on. With fading strength in the shallows and in good company I await the inevitable. Now I see them, faces above, beyond the watery glass ceiling of possibility. They are blurry but vivid. People performing a salmon ceremony, and others too ... AmeriCorps volunteers, fisheries biologists, committed environmentalists, whistle-blowers. I transcend my own life. I am a symbol, not a salmon, not a living being. No more.

I enter the mouth. We swim together, en masse, a force. Past nets yet to be dipped in clear perfect water, unhindered and free. We are one with the water. I feel connected, honored and with my original purpose intact -- in harmony with all. I see a hook glistening, I bite, knowing I am considered, honored and completed.

So there I was, at river's edge reeling in this beautiful grandfather salmon. Feeling completed, honored that a being with such a journey and brutal past would nourish my family and me. In that moment I sensed that huge walls of concrete had suddenly been erased that had long stood between us. We understood each other. In a strange but very tangible way I sensed we were one -- fish and fisherman.

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Email Bennett Barthelemy at,
or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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