Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Salmon's Leap of Faith

Something I witnessed a few weeks ago has been forefront in my mind ever since. I watched salmon leaping through rushing water and wriggling furiously against a fierce Puntledge River current to get upriver to their spawning grounds. This sight has been happening on many rivers in B.C. during the past month or so. Every year at this time, people who care about the wild salmon wait with apprehension, worrying about dried-up riverbeds, previous oil spills or overfishing as possible deterrents to a healthy salmon stock returning to their home spawning grounds. I don't know what kind of salmon I watched; I'm no biologist, though I do know they weren't the obvious red sockeye that return to the Adams River far inland.

Aside from being totally amazed at the determination I witnessed, I was also inspired. Because when you see such a small creature prevailing to fulfill its destiny in what looks to be the most strenuous and almost impossible situation...well, you can't help but feel inspired. Here's a very brief clip of one such salmon that I happened to catch on film that day.

How often do we see ourselves in this way--naturally driven through such extremes to overcome obstacles? Hardly ever. Yes, every time an athlete out-performs another in competition, we hear about that person's dedication and what he/she did to prepare for such victory. And there are those that persevere through wars, famine, drought, floods and so on. Sometimes they accomplish such feats alone, but more often they manage through support from others. We are communal creatures, and our need for community proves to be paramount in such difficult circumstances.

These salmon are alone in their struggle. And they prevail. They may have some kind of communication with one another (who truly knows?), but we can only know what scientists have observed through tagging and monitoring the fish closely: an inborn natural habit for the salmon to return to the place they were born, every four years, in order to repeat their life cycles. If communication isn't part of the salmon's knowing where and when to come home again, then isn't it even more amazing to consider? Seeing destiny by design certainly appears supernatural, making it easier for me to understand why many believe in an ultimate creator.

Thinking about these fish reminded me of a wedding sermon I once heard. The minister compared the couple marrying to two salmon, making their way up the river of life together. They will find rough places in the flow and also calm pools. When one falters, the other is there to accompany or assist, and so their union will be complete. I found this analogy rather poetic and moving, and it caused me to tear up a bit (I was at a difficult time in my life where I felt alone in my journey). But now I see that no such cooperation is taking place on the river. It's each salmon for itself; they might be aware of a treacherous spot by watching another fail there, but each one must work alone. There is no "hand up" or such in the salmon world (except by humans who build fish ladders or transport fish over manmade obstacles).

Knowing that it's each fish for itself gave me a different kind of perspective of the human condition. Our community spirit, when it's strong and functioning well, helps all of us to live more complete lives. Yet, when we are not strong, or even ill, we must also have an inner resolve that gets us through. Yes, there's help in the form of medicine or other aid (if it's available and we can afford it), but ultimately we are individuals who must use our inner strength and courage to keep forging ahead to a better condition. We aren't necessarily so obviously tuned to our life cycles as the salmon exhibits, but if we understand ourselves, we might draw upon an innate knowledge and keep striving towards a better place, or destiny. And since we're human, that place will naturally include others who share it with us--not just other people, but also creatures like the amazing salmon.


  1. Woah, ya it really is incredible that these salmon fight their way up pounding rivers. You are right about us having a community of support, but it also makes me feel stronger as an individual just thinking about that lone salmon. Good thought!

  2. The salmon you observed face a different situation than merely life's daily ups and downs. They face life's end. For them, every internal mechanism has oriented to the most basic of instincts: procreation. They have but a short time to pass on their genes to future generations, the most primitive and basic drive of all.

    Although I appreciate your inspiration, conjured up by that spectacle on the Puntledge river, I'm not sure I see the connection to our everyday struggles, at least in developed societies such as ours. The salmon face impending death; we, on the other hand, mostly face mild inconveniences and trivial concerns, such as having to forgo dinner out, or not being able to afford that new pair of shoes. Such "hardships" hardly compare to the salmon's dilemma.

    I might suggest an alternative to your challenge for us to think about the salmon's struggle during our daily affairs. People who face serious challenges, such as a deadly cancer, or loss of movement from disease or accident might better relate to the struggle of that salmon you witnessed. Perspectives and values tend to change quite significantly when death approaches. Some of our most clear thinking occurs during this time. Issues that seemed so important beforehand, slither in to irrelevance. Memories, ostensibly long disappeared, resurface to take on new importance and significance. People facing such dire conditions might better relate to that salmon's journey than you or I.

    People in third-world societies who lack adequate food, potable water, or shelter may also understand the challenge that salmon faced. Failure to persevere for those people often means the same outcome as your salmon: death. Such peoples truly understand your salmon's plight.

    That doesn't mean we can't learn from your salmon. If we can break out of our egoistic state and focus on the bigger picture--on those concerns that really matter for all life forms on the planet--instead of personal desires and wishes, we may actually learn something from that salmon's singular struggle.

    Looking at life as if it were about to expire will change our perspective, and may just be the needed prescription to save ourselves and the other species with which we share this planet. Don't just think about the salmon; become the salmon.

    1. I agree that what I witnessed is a life or death situation for the salmon; however I wasn't trying to equate our simple daily desires with the salmon's fight, but moreover to draw a connection so that when we are in need of inner strength, such as in the situations you describe--cancer, loss of basic necessities or other upheaval in our lives that forces such focus--we might remember the life cycle of the salmon. On a biological level, we obviously do focus on survival, but we can also approach such survival from a metaphysical awareness as well.