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Being Salmon, Being Human

by Martin Lee Mueller

Her journey began several moons before she made it downriver to the brackish waters of the estuary. There was a night she knew the time had come. The year’s spring floods had passed, and the water was beginning to warm. It was the night of the new moon, and the sky dome was black, the first seamless darkness after a stretch of moonlit and starlit nights. Three summers and winters had passed since she first emerged from the gravel. Three summers and winters, and never in those gyrating seasonal turns had she strayed very far. She and all the others had staked out their tiny river bottom territory, and they had defended their small home ranges jealously. But now the rising temperatures and the heavy grey sky beckoned. They struggled to make contact with her. It is time, they said, each in their peculiar tongue. And though she had not heard these utterances spoken before, her body understood. She abandoned her plot, watched the current wash away earlier rivalries, and joined the tight school that was beginning to crowd together. More and more of them arrived, and her body diffused, mingled, dispersed among the others, until they all had morphed into a larger, mutable shape. They were a single, collective will with a multiplicity of watchful eyes, sensing an urgency pulse within, a certain rush. Spring was here, and after that night, nothing would ever be the same.

A cloud shadow passed overhead. Perfect darkness spilled through her gills, her breathing canals, her eyes. This was it. The many-finned, pliable body seeped into the fast-moving torrent, tails down current, heads facing upriver to breathe the water while the river carried them. She did not struggle to keep abreast of the current, or to move against it. The larger body she had become diffused further outward and into the larger body of the water itself, becoming its current, its resolve. She abandoned herself entirely to its guidance, breathing it, letting its drift become the measure of her imagination.

The days came and went, and she drifted, mostly under the cover of darkness. Smaller passageways joined the central river vein, water that tasted almost familiar. Scent ribbons bled through the turbulences, not unlike northern lights that bleed into a winter night. She smelled and smelled, and somehow, it seemed that the world was deepening, growing larger, there in the margins of her awareness. The scent ribbons wound upriver, all the way back to where she first had left.

Changes were adrift deep inside the veins of the watershed, and deep inside the fabric of her flesh. She intuited the changes. Her body, growing longer and slimmer. Her steady impulse to flow, to move and be moved. Her fin edges darkening, turning shadow-black, the fins themselves growing more and more translucent. Her very skin changing, turning silver, looking ever less like the turbid river and ever more like . . . well, she was not exactly sure like what.

She had noticed the signs much earlier, even before this journey began: the vain attempts by some to form schools when most were not yet interested. The occasional flash of premature silver skin among them, when all the rest were still river-shaded. The larger and more slender body that so clearly stood out amongst the rest—the last thing any of them wanted, now that this school of duplicate bodies was their only refuge. Each of them had been on their own trajectory. Each of them had intuited an imminent metamorphosis, but no one was quite able to make the loose ends flow together. They knew changes were adrift, but they were slightly out of sync with one another, out of phase. Isolated in their own skin. Until the new moon and the warmer water incited in them a common pace and purpose. They knew better than to resist submitting to these eloquent powers. And so, she and the others drifted, and they felt for the clues. They laboured to become fluent in the subtle tongue of synchronicity.

The anthropologist James V. Wertsch has described humans as “storytelling animals.” If we wish to discuss such questions as “What shall we do with our lives?” or “Where are we headed as a society?”, we must first ask, “What stories are we a part of?” The philosopher Neil Evernden has further suggested that our freedom lies first and foremost in the choosing of our story, rather than our actions within that story. The story I have looked at most closely in my work is that of anthropocentrism – or the story that humans are separate from the more-than-human world, the world’s centre and main attraction. I’ve come to understand that the story not only reflects a certain arrogance but also a deep loneliness. The first modern philosopher, René Descartes, viewed all phenomena except for his own thinking as mechanistic, machine-like. He encouraged his students to open up living animals with scalpels, so as to study their inner workings. The students were to ignore the animals’ writhing and kicking and screaming. They were also to actively deny their own empathy. Why? Because neither our own body’s spontaneous suffering with other creatures, nor those creature’s desperate attempts to appeal to our feelings (and thereby, to communicate meaningfully with us), were said to be true. Both our bodies and all other animals were complicated machines, and thus subordinate to humans. This was the very opening chapter of the age of modernity. To this day, we struggle to overcome the consequences.

In her doctoral dissertation, the anthropologist Anna Magnussøn has documented a deep ontological shift in relation to what it means to be salmon in the context of industrial fish farming. She shows that the industry is built around an inherent imperative to reinterpret these living, sensing, intelligent, cold-blooded beings into “biomass”, or mass-produced life. She shows that the imperative overshadows practically all claims to animal welfare and sustainability. And do not we humans, too, become re-defined in this lonely story – from participating, wondering, sensing, fellow creatures at home inside this biosphere to, well, consumers? Perhaps the old story of humans as separate from the living world is alienating both to the salmon and to ourselves?

To think like the ocean. To be the ocean thinking itself within her. Perhaps this is precisely what it means to reach maturity. She is called into being within the fluid depth of water, which is at once elder, womb, blood. How long has her kin voyaged the arching globe? Six million years – thirty times longer than my species, wise humans, has existed. The steady stream of ancestral journeys reaches back into time immemorial, and their shapes are slowly morphing, changing, reworking themselves across this vast curvature of time. She lives inside an imagination that has been molded by glacial advances, by the patient force of trickling water carving deep flanks into flatlands, by a trillion raindrops eroding the mountains. Her sentient body bears within itself the promise for metamorphosis, a creative adaptability within a world that never rests. As she grows, the distant echo of a particular watershed takes shape within—its velocity, its seasonal temperaments, the power of its autumn swells, the complex topography of its arteries. Each quality of the river adds its subtle claim to this body that is her, refining her. Born into a shapeshifting world, it is what she is: a shapeshifter. Swelling rivers, marching glaciers, dwindling mountains, currents that flow on and on, the very ocean: Each remembers itself within her flesh. Each calls itself into being through her flesh, again and again. She is the world birthing itself.

She knows nothing of the furnace deep within the core of the world, of pressure so immense that molten iron will crystalize into a solid. Nor of the liquid iron that flows in a rotational pattern around that innermost core, following the planet’s rotation. And yet she can sense the delicate magnetic bands that weave themselves from these frictions and outward, around the spinning axis of the globe, fluctuating most forcefully near either pole and weaving smaller, far subtler bands between there and herself. Earth’s bipolar magnetic lure flickers continually within her. This globe’s composition and its massive shape rebound throughout her flesh. That far larger body throbs in her head, all along her lateral line, throughout the varied topography of her flesh. To align herself with true north is to sense a faint, subtle shudder of recognition rush through her. A chill of embodiment. Iron crystals within her, iron crystals within the core of Earth’s larger body: beckoning, striving to hear, calling, responding, gesturing, learning to react, aligning themselves, seeking congruence. Ever since she left the river, she has been negotiating the fluctuating semiotics of field navigation. As she has matured from a smolt into an adult, her sense for the larger body has grown keener. Each local variation in the blue expanse—its own field quality. Each region in the ocean—its own magnetic tension. With sustained attention, and if she engages the full range of her corporeal intelligence, she can distinguish the unique feel of the magnetic field where she first encountered the ocean as a juvenile. No other place sets her nerves on edge quite like that one.
Her intelligence is as ancient as her journey, and inseparable from it. But it is also, and in equal measure, utterly fresh: It calibrates itself constantly and fluidly as she and her kind slip from one life cycle to the next. Navigation becomes a creative dance between perception, the memory of her breathing flesh, and the larger bodies that compose her. It becomes a continuous improvisation with the upsurge of the present moment, in a complex field of interaction.

How do we break with a 400-year-old story of ourselves as separate from the world, and others as our subordinates, slaves? If the question is difficult to ask, I suppose answers will not come easily either. I do what I often do in such moments; I take a walk to my nearest salmon river, Akerselva, which runs right through the heart of Oslo. Salmon still hold so many lessons in store. Just now they are migrating upriver once again, past old factories and kindergartens and karaoke bars, ready to spawn a new generation. Every autumn a new generation reenacts their ancient, existential drama. When it’s done, most of them will die and rot by the river banks, or be consumed by birds or foxes or insects. I see a handful of them standing down there in the fast-moving current, just beneath the bridge. I take a deep breath; a look around. And I understand that the deconstruction of the old story is already well underway: science is piecing together a richer picture of the fishes’ inner lives than ever before. Philosophers have in earnest re-discovered the world of the senses and of feelings. The double-split between humans and animals, and between body and mind, is well underway to being mended. It’s like my mentor, David Abram, once said: we are many sets of eyes staring out at each other from the same, living body.

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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