Originally published as the cover essay in Tikkun magazine:
May/June issue, 2001.
Reciprocity and the Salmon
water-borne reflections from the northwest coast
by David Abram
1. The Lessons of Salmon
My first encounter with spawning salmon gleams with a cool, moonlit radiance in my memory. I'd grown up in the suburban east coast and knew nothing of this wild fish and its mysterious ways. It was in the mid-eighties, and I was kayaking in the Prince William Sound a year or two before the taut, ever-shifting surface of that life-filled sea was generously layered with a glistening blanket of oil by the Exxon company. This was my first time in Alaska, and I was stunned by the vastness of the mountains laced with glaciers and the abundance of bald eagles that seemed to gaze down at me from every overhanging branch and snag. We had beached our kayaks on one of the larger islands for the night, and after a simple meal I went walking off along the coast as the sun was slipping down toward the horizon, drinking the salt air and listening to the lapping of the small waves and the wind in the needles. After some time I came to the edge of a surging stream about twelve feet across, whose surface was rippling and splashing in the fading light -- and without paying much attention I sat down on a mossy rock a ways back from the stream's edge just to bask in the rushing speech of those waters, and to gaze out into the oncoming night. And I lost myself in some reverie or other, until my awareness was brought back to the place by a pale glow beginning to spread into the sky from the rocks on the far side of the stream. The glow got steadily more intense until, as I watched, the full moon was hatched from those rocks, huge and round as a ripe peach, pouring its radiance across the stony beach and the gleaming waves and the rustling spruce needles and generally casting a kind of spell over the whole place.
Now, I have never, of course, seen a cow jump over the moon. But that night I did see a fish jump over the moon. A great streamlined silhouette, its tail flapping, arced right over the full moon, and splashed back into the water. Whaa?! I couldn't believe what I'd just seen, and so was still staring at the after-image -- and then another silhouette leapt right over the moon!
I got up and walked over to the water's edge: the stream was thick with salmon, boiling with salmon, all jostling and surging against the current in fits and starts --- it was as if the stream was made of salmon! I gazed and gazed for a couple hours. Then went back to my tent and tried to sleep, but couldn't. So I came back in the middle of the night, and stood staring into that moon-illuminated river of fish, and then I waded out into the middle of that mass of silvery, sparkling muscles all surging and lunging against the current. In the middle of the stream I was up to my knees in salmon, but they didn't care -- didn't even notice; they bumped into my legs and then plunged on past with a single-minded determination I'd never encountered before, nosing aside their dead or dying siblings and cousins as they floating back downstream on their sides, with their mottled skin beginning to fall off, but these earnest salmon around me just nudged them aside, hardly noticing, intent on one thing and one thing alone -- getting upstream to their spawning place, depositing their eggs and fertilizing those eggs, before they too began to fall apart and to die. I'd never imagined such intensity, such single mindedness. Their total focus on getting upstream to create new life, and their utter obliviousness to everything else -- to their dead or dying relatives, to other species who might prey upon them (to me, for instance, my own legs shivering among them), to everything other than the impulse to procreate . . .
There seemed something strangely familiar about this -- something wierdly familiar about this apparent readiness to multiply at all costs, and this consequent obliviousness to all other beings and species. It seemed so similar to. . . So much like, like -- well yes, of course, so much like us, us humans! -- our own species, Homo sapiens, steadily multiplying and multiplying these last several centuries without much noticing anything else, seemingly deaf and blind to the presence of all the other species with whom we share this wild world. And so, right then and there, I began to wonder if our own species was not caught in a kind of spawn, if we were not, indeed, spawning. I mean, this would explain our apparent obliviousness to everything other than ourselves, our willingness to shove aside not only other species in our rather reckless rush to multiply and fill the earth, but to nudge aside also all those humans who are falling apart and dying as result of the steady swelling of our numbers and the steady surge of technological progress. And it would imply that those who wish to spark a new awareness and recognition of other species -- of other animals, plants, and forests -- must also work to awaken us from this steady, many-centuries-long spawning behaviour that seems to hold us in its grip.
But I mean no disrespect to the salmon. I have no wish to insult them, or to offend them in any way, and so I must straightaway apologize to them -- apologize to the wild Sockeye and the Chinook, to the Pink and the Chum and the Coho, for this admittedly awkward comparison. For if we humans are in a spawn, it is hardly that seasonal, cyclical replenishment that the salmon practice: rather it is a steady, unending surge, a procreation and proliferation without bounds -- after all, we've more than tripled the human population of this wild planet in the course of the last sixty years. The amount of increase in the 1990s alone exceeded the size of the entire human population that was alive in the year 1600! Moreover, if spawning salmon seem oblivious to all else as they surge up the rivers and streams, their relentless self-sacrifice on behalf of new life actually nourishes countless other species. After they spawn, their spawned-out bodies provide food for the bears, for the river otters, for racoons, coyotes, skunks, bobcats and squirrels, food for eagles and red-tailed hawks and winter wrens, and for all the local corvids -- ravens and crows and stellar jays and gray jays -- and thus the salmons' spirit filters into and nourishes the whole of these forests. If the steady growth of the human population leads us to clearcut these mountainsides, the spawning salmon vitalize and invigorate these forested slopes, gifting them with wild nutrients.
So let me try to correct whatever wrong, whatever offense I might have committed by my clumsy comparison by praising the salmon, this most amazing of earthly mysteries, this wild intelligence that joins the land to the sea and the sea to the land, this bright intermediary binding matter and spirit, whose life feeds both our bodies and our imaginations, and whose loss impoverishes human culture no less than it is impoverishes the vitality of the land and the forests. Is not Salmon the real genius of these coastal forests? All who live and work in these forests, sheltered from the drenching rains by hemlocks and cedars and firs, harvesting wood from these trees, planting soils fed by these mountain rivers -- or even pouring through books plucked from the library stacks at the universities, or toiling away in front of computer terminals up on the Microsoft campus -- all who live here in the coastal northwest are under the influence of salmon, our minds inevitably informed by this collective anadromous intelligence whose patterns and rhythms provided the living template for the earliest patterns of human settlement in this terrain, the infrastructure for the rhythms of human culture in this watery realm.
The strange ways of the salmon are a key and unifying component of this ecosystem, as integral to the mind of this land as is the monsoon to the mind of the Himalayas. As we become conscious of their influence, as we watch them and eat them and ponder their ways, we learn so much from them. They teach us wonder, of course, and humility -- since these fish carry secrets that we simply cannot fathom with all our analytical tools. How do the wild salmon find their way back to their home stream after swimming thousands of miles out across the vast Pacific? We simply do not know. After several years out at sea, do they simply retrace their strokes to get home? No! Indeed, it is clear that the salmon commonly return by a different route than that by which they left. Nevertheless, a single stock of wild sockeye that were marked and later observed spread out across 2300 miles of ocean (near the Aleutian Islands, and the Kamchatka peninsula, and the coast of Japan) all turned up at the mouth of their natal stream within 3 days of one another. How?!? By what magic do they find their way back not just into the right river mouth, or the right tributary of that river, but into the precise little stream where they once hatched? By what kind of deep somatic attunement -- feeling their way between faint electromagnetic anomalies, riding a particular angle of the sun as it filters down through the rippled surface above, dreaming their way through gradients of scent and taste toward the lost beloved -- how do they find their way to that source, that particular place inseparable from their being? Each genetically distinct population of wild salmon is perfectly tuned, it would seem, to the geological character, the climatic variables, the disturbance regimes, and the flow patterns of its native stream, a tunement born from thousands of years of intimate adaptation to that one stretch of water and rock and shadow, each fish a perfect expression of the evolutionary wisdom of its particular watershed. And so, besides teaching us a new capacity for astonishment, the salmon also instruct us about the primordial primacy of place. It is a primacy long forgotten by our steadily globalizing civilization, with its spreading malls and video-outlets, this culture wherein the highways heading into town -- lined with Taco Bells, video outlets, Jiffy Lubes, Sizzler Steakhouses and Barnes&Noble Superstores -- look just like the highways leading into every other town, and so the stream of cars we're swimming in might just as well be carrying us into Eureka or Eugene or Ukiah for that matter (into Bellingham or Birmingham or Billings) cause when we finally reach the headwaters of our highway and head inside our office-building, the computer terminal we'll gaze at when we finally get to work will gaze back at us with the same blank stare no matter where we're pushing the buttons. The place doesn't really make any difference for us, at least not as long as we consider the land to be merely a backdrop against which human history unfolds, or merely as a stockpile of resources for the global spread of our human monoculture.
Or does the place where we are, actually make some difference to who we are? Clearly that is what the salmon teach us. As we try to compensate for the dwindling salmon runs with hatchery-reared fish whose eggs were plucked from other watersheds, these confused and dumbed-down hatchery salmon make it clear to us that real places are not interchangeable -- at least not for wild, earth-born beings -- and that wild, sustainable (or self-replenishing) culture is indissolubly place-specific.
However, the greatest and the most profound lesson that the salmon teach us is the power and the magic of reciprocity. Reciprocity! The two-way flow, the reciprocal exchange between realms. The gift of the mountains and the forests to the vast ocean, and later, the return of that gift, now offered from the sea to the land, to these forests and mountain valleys, which ensures that the gift will be reborn afresh from a clump of luminous eggs buried beneath a layer of pebbles, so that it can be given, once again, to the salty depths of the sea. This circulation, this systole and diastole is one of the signs that the earth is alive, this rhythmic pulse of finned and flashing fish spreading out through various arteries into the wide body of the ocean, circulating there, growing there, only to return by various veins to the beating heart of the forest, gravid with new life.
Or maybe its best to think of this seasonal reciprocity as a kind of breathing, as an exhalation of thousands, of hundreds of thousands of young salmon from the land out into the sea to mingle with whales and algal blooms, and then the great inhalation, the breathing back in of living nourishment from the oceans into the mouths of rivers, flowing up those rivers into tributaries, and from there into the branching streams that filter into the green forests, the living lungs of this earthly world. Or else it is the ocean that is breathing, inhalating these finned nutrients down from the forested slopes, sucking them down over rocks and through rapids and hydroelectric dams, past settlements and cities and out into its vast cycling currents and tides, circulating this silvery life within itself before breathing it back up into the valleys and the mountain forests.
Reciprocity, the ceaseless give and take, the flow that moves in two directions -- this is the real teaching of the salmon. It is the foundation of any real ethic: give unto others as you would have them give unto you. But this is not the "golden" rule, this is rather the silver rule, the lesson taught by silvery fish scales glinting in the moonlight: if you wish to receive sustenance from the land then you must offer sustenance to the land in return. If you wish to draw nourishment from the waters and the winds, then you must honor and shelter those waters and the winds. Most specifically, never take more from the living land than you need, and indeed never take more from the living land than you return to the land -- not only with nourishing offerings and propitiations, but also with prayers and praises -- gifting the breathing earth with our eloquence, honoring the sensuous and sentient surroundings with the heartfelt gratitude of our songs and our dances, feeding the more-than-human world with our grateful attention. The First Salmon Ceremonies that once resounded up and down this coast every year were filled with such eloquence, with such prayers and praise songs honoring the salmon, and the rivers, and the abundant, animate earth.
2. The City Walls
Yet in so many ways our culture has forgotten the wild teaching of reciprocity. Our civilization does not consider the land around us as an animate, living matrix but as a set of determinate processes, which we describe in entirely mechanomorphic terms. We define nature not as a community of living subjects held together by an intricate gift economy -- wherein each being, each life is nourished by a host of others, and then gives of its life in return -- rather we speak of the nature around us as an almost random concatenation of passive things, not a community of living subjects but a conglomeration of objects and automatic processes, void of all interiority, lacking all spontaneity, without any active agency -- merely a stockpile of resources waiting to be requisitioned by us.
But how can one practice reciprocity with an inert or determinate object? How can one enter into relationship with something that has no life, no interiority, no active agency of its own? The only active agencies in this world, the only real subjects among this concatenation of passive objects, are us humans. And so, indeed, reciprocity is cultivated between human persons, and ethics emerges as the practice of right relationship within human society. Presumably, the rest of nature cannot reciprocate our attentions. For two millennia, Western, alphabetic civilization has defined itself in opposition to the wild, as a realm apart from earthly nature. And our philosophers have played a significant role in establishing, and certifying, this opposition. In one of Plato's most brilliant and scintillating dialogues, Socrates is asked by Phaedrus why he never ventures out beyond the walls of Athens to wander in the open countryside. And Socrates answers him with these words: "Look Phaedrus: I'm a lover of learning, and trees and open country won't teach me anything, whereas men in the town will." There's nothing I can learn outside the city walls -- trees and other animals have nothing to teach; only from other people can I really learn anything. Right there, at the very origin of the our philosophical tradition in Athens, is already erected this bifurcation-- this wall -- between the intelligent world of humans and the basically mute world of nature. Two thousand years later, the same wall is patched up and renovated by Monsieur Descartes, with his neat distinction between thinking substance, or mind -- which is the special province of humankind -- and extended substance, or matter -- which is everything else. You still see that old wall, not quite between the city and the country now, but between the human mind, which is one thing, and material nature, which is another thing. Material nature is a kind of pure exterior, the human mind is a kind of pure interior. Many thinkers have tried to breach this wall in the course of the twentieth century, but it has proved surprisingly resilient. The barrier has been well preserved in the academic distinction between the sciences -- which presumably study the objective, readily quantifiable world of external nature; and the humanities -- which get to deal with the interior, with that more qualitative, subjective domain that is the special haunt of humankind.
But my main point here is that reciprocity -- and hence, ethics -- is simply not possible in such a situation, when the entities to be related do not partake of the same world, when they have no commonality, no common ground on which to meet and make contact. It is simply not possible to enter into a living relationship, much less a reciprocal relationship, with an inert object. It is not possible to reciprocate a purely passive or mechanical or insentient conglomeration of objects.
Reciprocity is only possible if there is some common ground, some common medium through which a mutual exchange can unfold. But how shall we locate, or establish, a common ground between ourselves and the rest of nature? Shall we say (in the manner of biologist and environmentalist Edward O. Wilson) that we humans, too, are entirely a part of the objective, quantifiable, determinable world of nature that we see automatically doing its thing all around us -- that our emotions and even our thoughts are nothing other than a set of genetically programmed automatisms that will soon be mapped and measured? Perhaps, but then we rob ourselves of our own active agency, our own ability to willfully act, to respond, to reciprocate another being.
Perhaps, then, we should try to breach the wall from the other direction, like many post-modern theorists who assert that nature, itself, is actually a social construction. These theorists suggest that our experience is always already structured by the multiple social forces, polarizations, distributions and dissimulations of power in which we are culturally situated. Many deconstructive analyses stress the extent to which our experience of other-than-human phenomena is thoroughly structured by by our particular culture — to the extant that "nature," itself, may be said to be a cultural construction.
Yet such theorists tend to perpetuate, in post-modern guise, the most spurious of all modern presumptions — the presumption that humankind is the sole creative (or constructive) agency in the earthly world. Their analyses all too easily become merely a new justification for the manipulation and alteration of other-than-human realities for our own, exclusively human purposes. They risk being taken up, for instance, by those who wish to justify the biogenetic engineering of other-than-human organisms for purely human benefit: since nature is largely a social construction, then why not continue to construct the rest of nature as we see fit?
But what if we were to supplement the warranted assertion that our experience of non-human nature is largely constructed by human culture, with an acknowledgement that human culture is itself structured and informed, in countless ways, by the wider-than-human matrix of powers in which it is embedded? Why not acknowledge that while our notions of the world are structured by our particular culture, cultures are themselves structured by the interplay of gravity, winds, waters, and sunlight, by the migratory movements of various animals and the nutritional and medicinal powers of particular plants. Why not admit that human culture is itself influenced, organized and mediated by many agencies that are not human or of human artifice?
By acknowledging the direct, material influence of these non-human agencies, we do not pin human reality to a static or determinate order of essences. For by affirming the canyons, the wind, the moon, and the forest as actors, as animate agents like ourselves, we simultaneously acknowledge their formative influence and their otherness (their wild indeterminacy, their existence not as fathomable objects but as inscrutable entities with whom we stand in a living relation). Of course the world we experience is not an objective and determinate reality -- there is no doubt that it is a social creation! But the "society" that constructs this indeterminate world is much vaster than any merely human society -- it includes spiders and swallows and subterranean seepages along with us two-leggeds. Surely it is time to outgrow this most tenacious of modernist presumptions: for all our craftiness and creative ferment, we humans are by no means the sole, or even the primary, agents of the world's construction.
And as soon as we acknowledge the active influence of these other beings and elements, we find ourselves negotiating relationships with every aspect of the sensuous terrain that surrounds us. And reciprocity -- the simple practice of mutual respect -- becomes an imperative.
In other words, reciprocity, the deep lesson of the salmon, only becomes possible if the rest of nature is experienced as something that can reciprocate us, only if nature is recognized not as a conglomeration of objects but as a community of living subjects, of entities who -- like ourselves -- are active, animate agencies. But also only if we humans are recognized not as disembodied minds but as material, bodily subjects, as animals in our own right, and thus participants in the same world that the salmon inhabit, characters in the same vast story.
Among many of the First Nations peoples who fished and hunted along the northwest coast, it was common knowledge that the salmon, when they are not visiting us in the rivers and streams of the forest, are off living beneath the sea, or beyond the horizon, in their own camps and villages, where they take off their silvery skins and walk around in human form. When, for example, in the nineteenth century several Skagit Indians accompanied a white expedition back to the east coast, and saw the abundance of pale, pink-skinned people living there, they reported back to their tribe that they had been to salmon country and had seen the salmon walking around as human beings! To most moderns, today, this seems like an amazing flight of fancy. But what if such a notion -- of humans and salmon sharing a common flesh, indeed as relatives, as members of a common family -- is a basic prerequisite for reciprocity, for the establishment of a right, and respectful, relation between the people of this terrain and the fish that sustains them? Does contemporary American culture, today, maintain such a respectful relation to the salmon? Not at all; salmon populations have been dwindling and going extinct since we began manipulating salmon runs, for our own purposes, in the nineteenth century. Perhaps then there is something to be learned from these curious beliefs and ways of speaking.
At the First Salmon Ceremonies people paid homage to the fish, and spoke to them, addressing them by such honorific titles as "Noble One" or "Lightning Following One Another, ""Two Gills on Back," "Quartz Nose," "Three Leaps" "Noble Chief" or "Chief Spring Salmon." The salmon, in other words, were treated as royalty -- as, in Jonathan Raban's words, "the lords and ladies of the sea." And they were addressed, spoken to. But really, now: why speak to a fish in this exalted manner? Why even speak to the fish at all? Surely they cannot understand our words, if even they can hear us. Clearly, it is another flight of fancy . . . Unless, unless the act of speaking to these strange, water-born beings is the simplest, most elegant way of turning our attention toward these beings, unless speaking to them and then listening or watching for their reply is a simple way to tune our senses to these other shapes of sentience -- to bind our own awareness to these other embodied intelligences -- and so to let ourselves be informed by their ways. Another way of ensuring, and of enacting, reciprocity.
3. The Many-Voiced Earth
But what role does language play in the practice of reciprocity? In the mainstream, dominant culture, we spend a great deal of time talking about nature, about other animals, about "the environment." But many indigenous, oral peoples seem to spend just as much time talking to the world -- speaking to the salmon, to the forest, to the land itself, and listening for their replies. The modern, civilized assumption is that language is precisely that which distinguishes and separates us two-leggeds from all the other animals -- since humans alone possess the capacity for meaningful speech. Language, for us moderns, is an exclusively human property.
Traditionally oral cultures commonly hold a much more expansive view of language, one which includes verbal language, of course, but which also includes the communicative power of bodily expressions and gestures (like a scowl, or a shrug, or the tail-between-the-legs gesture made by a submissive young wolf) as well as the expressive, evocative potency of many non-verbal sounds (laughter, for instance, or the honking of geese veeing south for the winter, and the distant rumble of thunder, or even the sigh of the wind in the high grasses). For a majority of indigenous cultures, language (or meaningful speech) is not an exclusively human property, but is rather a property of the surrounding earth itself, in which humans participate. The commonality of this belief is remarkable, given the tremendous differences between indigenous peoples worldwide. Nevertheless, whether one consults the Haida people of the island northwest or the Hopi people of the southwest desert, whether one asks among the Huarani of the Amazon basin or the Pintupi and Pitjantjarra of Australia, the most articulate members of the culture will insist that the coherence of their spoken language is inseparable from the coherence of the local ecology -- from the expressive vitality of the more-than-human terrain. For such indigenous, oral peoples, it is the animate earth that speaks; human speech is just one part of that much wider conversation.
From an indigenous perspective, in other words, everything speaks. And so we humans must take care with our own speaking, since many other beings are listening, and can hear us. Here, for example, are a few observations made by a member of the Mattole Indians -- a California tribe that has now vanished from the world. Recorded in an interview half a century ago, his words describe the proper way to behave around water and waves.
"The water watches you and has a definite attitude, favorable or otherwise, toward you. Do not speak just before a wave breaks. Do not speak to passing rough water in a stream. Do not look at water very long for any one time, unless you have been to this spot ten times or more. Then the water there is used to you and does not mind if you're looking at it. Older men can talk in the presence of the water because they have been around so long that the water knows them. Until the water at any spot does know you, however, it becomes very rough if you talk in its presence or look at it too long."
(G.W.Hewes, quoted in Alfred Kroeber and Samuel Barrett,
"Fishing Among the Indians of Northwest California")
What a curious kind of etiquette! And how odd it sounds to many of us, today. And yet it is a striking example of what I'm here calling reciprocity -- the felt mutuality and exchange between people and water. And it functions to keep the members of a coastal, fishing culture exquisitely attentive and attuned to the fluid ways of the water, to the shifting eddies along the river, the pattern of waves along the coast. Such an etiquette toward the fluid element inculcates a steady respect, and ensures that the culture will not readily violate the health of those waters, or the vitality of the watershed.
4. Of Whales and Wild Culture
The Makah Indians comprise a culture profoundly informed by the whale -- a society whose traditions have been defined by the hunting of gray and humpback whales, and by the intimate knowledge of the whales that such hunting requires. For at least two thousand years (and very probably more like four thousand years), the ancestors of the Makah have lived in settlements around the Northwestern tip of the Olympic peninsula -- the westernmost point of land in what is now the contiguous United States -- close to the migratory routes of whales and other sea mammals. Archaological evidence unearthed over the last forty years confirms the deep record preserved in the Makah oral traditions, and demonstrates that theirs was a complex and highly organized hunting and fishing society. It is clear, both from the oral stories and the material evidence, that the Makah traditionally fished not only in the streams but offshore, and that they hunted fur seals and other sea mammals in long cedar canoes. It is also abundantly clear that the most formidable and awe-filled event, which radiated its intensity into all areas of the culture, was the whale-hunt. That is, the engagement most laden with spiritual power and significance was the life and death encounter with this entity who comes to meet us humans from the depths of a fluid world we can barely penetrate, this mysterious intelligence so much vaster than our own, the confrontation with whom startles us, willy nilly, into our most attentive and wakeful mode of being. The whale was the primary source of sustenance -- both physical and spiritual -- for the Makah people, and as the gift of its flesh was shared among all members of the community, a kind of nourishment spread not just into their limbs and muscles, but into their minds as well. The vast life and the inscrutable sentience of the whale became a part of their own collective being, binding them into a common spirit, ensuring the rich cohesion of their culture. These were a people made of whale.
The Makah are the only tribe whose right to hunt the whale was written into the treaties that they signed with the U.S. government in 1855.
They knew the habits of the whale as well as anyone, and when the numbers of gray whales were plummeting, as a result of overhunting around the planet by American and European commercial whaling ships, the Makah recognized it early, and voluntarily gave up hunting whales in the nineteen-twenties, fully a decade or more before the United States issued a ban on the taking of gray whales. Yet what a painful decision this must have been, to voluntarily turn away from this encounter, this exchange with a wild Other that lay at the heart of their cultural life. So much of daily life, from mundane practices like the fashioning of tools and the preparation and cooking of food, to their ceremonial traditions -- their stories and songs and dances, the initiation of the young, the secret societies which carried the ritual lore of the tribe -- were all structured by their interchange with the whale.
Today the gray whales -- Blessed Be! -- seem to have rebounded somewhat from the brink of extinction. Thanks no doubt to the moratorium on commercial whaling, perhaps some twenty-five thousand of them are now pursuing their nomadic life in the Pacific Ocean, migrating between their winter breeding grounds off the Mexican coast and their summer feeding areas in the Bering and Beaufort seas. And in May 1999, the Makah people -- or, more specifically, seven Makah whalers paddling a dugout cedar canoe and using a handthrust harpoon to initiate the kill -- hunted and killed a gray whale for the first time in seven decades, reviving a tradition that dates back at least two millenia. For this they have been reviled in the media, they have been called murderers by environmental groups, and they have been laughed at and ridiculed because their technique was not perfect -- because, that is, it wasn't entirely easy for them to rescusitate traditional techniques that have been slumbering for some seventy-five years.
Yet it is a conundrum, this killing of a whale. Many environmentalists are outraged -- indeed, almost the entire environmental community seems to be scandalized that anyone, much less a Native American community, would hunt or willfully kill such a unique and mysterious being. Why cannot the Makah renew their cultural traditions by simply pretending to hunt the whale, or by a symbolic hunt? Instead of harpooning the whale, why couldn't they just dart it with a radio-transmitter so we could more accurately track the whale's migratory route? In this manner they could contribute to the rational, scientific assessment of whale behaviour. Or else, if the Makah are hoping to revitalize their economy, why can't they do it by taking people out on whale-watching tours, like everyone else? Why do they have to kill the whale?!?
Yet such arguments from the environmental community arise from a perspective all too similar to that which I wrote of above, the view that considers nature to be something entirely different from human culture. Culture, with Socrates, exists on this side of the city wall, nature and the whales exist on the other side. Nature is something that we humans look at from outside, not something that we are in and of. The whales are a remarkable spectacle to see, so let's peer at them from the rail of the boat, or better yet let's fit them with radio transmitters so we can track them on our screens, as we now track the wolves through Yellowstone, but let us take care not to ever imagine that we ourselves are really inside of the same world that those whales inhabit! Our relation to nature must remain that of spectators looking at a spectacle, or perhaps that of managers overseeing a very complicated set of processes, but we are never to participate in those processes.
If our sense of standing outside or apart from nature once led us to manipulate and mine up the rest of nature with little consideration for anything other than our own benefit, today that same sense of nature's exteriority leads us continually to try to monitor and manage nature from outside, as though we were not entirely embedded in the very matrix we seek to control. Lord knows, it is a difficult and scary thing to give up one's sense of control, and to acknowledge one's vulnerability. Yet reciprocity is simply not possible is such a one-sided situation -- where one entity is always the manager, and the other is the managed; or where one species is the spectator, and the other the spectacle.
What is most disturbing, and most exciting, about the possible renewal of the whale hunt by an indigenous nation like the Makah is that it marks a potential site where the managerial ethos that currently holds sway between humankind and the rest of nature is beginning to dissolve in the face of a new, more participatory ethic of vulnerability and reciprocity.
Would the whales prefer that the Makah give up hunting and leave their harpoons in the museum? Not being a whale, of course, I don't know. I'm fairly sure that the whales would prefer it if industrial whaling came to an end, if the commercial whaling fleets of Japan and of Norway backed off and shut themselves down. And maybe they'd even prefer it if the Inuit (Eskimo) whalers in Alaska and Russia, who are permitted to hunt them under the "aboriginal clause" of the International Whaling Commission, would also back off from their easy reliance on motorboats and high powered rifles and harpoon cannons and and radio transmitters and airplanes and even helicopters in their pursuit of so-called "subsistence whaling." But I'm not sure that the whales much prefer those folks who chase them around in whale-watching motorboats just to gawk and stare at them. (After all, whales have an exquisitely sensitive auditory sense, underwater: can we imagine what it would feel like to hear these whale-watching boats following us around all the time? "whiiiiiiiiiiirrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirrr..."). I'm not sure that the whales don't crave a more direct way to teach us, a way less encumbered by technology and yet more motivated by the practicalities of our own mammalian life -- I'm not sure that they don't crave a more direct way to instruct us, to lead our canoes around on risky chases, and to transform our lives with astonishment, to inform our communities and to shape our cultures.
Of course those, like myself, who are members of the dominant
culture can hardly tell the Makah that they should not avail themselves of the technologies that the dominant culture uses whenever it wants. But we can admit to the Makah that our own over-dependance upon these technologies is slowly killing us, that our over-reliance upon many technologies is destroying our health and wreaking havok on our society -- that we desparately need to learn how to live and to work without depending so much upon all these machinic mediations. We can say to the Makah: "Your culture, your traditions still carry knowledge of how to live a life relatively unmediated by such high-speed technologies which seem to undermine any prospect of reciprocity not only with other animals, but with our human neighbors as well. As you now find and rejuvenate those traditions, might you please teach us something of those skills?"
For the Makah, it seems to me, are not only rescusitating of their own traditions. If they are sincere in their wish to revive their traditional, labor-intensive hunting practices, and if they persist in this careful and difficult craft, then they are also opening a channel for the whales to begin to inform human culture again -- not as quaint, aesthetic symbols to put on posters, but as magnanimous and dangerous powers with whom we find our lives entwined.
5. Humility in a More-than-Human World
Of course the whales would not be the only species to break through our contemporary hubris and to draw us back into relation. Other species are already beckoning to us, trying to lure us back inside the world. Indeed, the salmon, it seems, are at last beginning to get though to us. If and when we finally do breach those dams on the lower Snake river, it will be a remarkable moment in the human story. It would be an event quite different from merely being forced by the Endangered Species Act to back off from overfishing or from overhunting a particular animal; something very different from deciding not to clearcut another swath of old-growth forest, or not to develop a certain plot of land that turns out to be prime habitat for a rare critter. It would be different because in this case we would not only be halting our projected plans, or interrupting progress, but actually undoing what has already been done, reversing our ostensible progress. . . We'd be acknowledging that a mistake was made and acting to undo it -- even at the cost of certain arrangements that have come to be taken for granted by various citizens. And perhaps at some real economic cost as well, at least in the short term. In this instance, in other words, we would be accepting not just to limit ourselves, but to reverse ourselves on behalf of another species. And this would indeed mark a wondrous moment in the human story -- the moment when modern humankind, so drunk on our apparently unlimited technological capacity, begins to recognize and accept that we do have limits after all, and that we have overstepped those limits, and must take a little step back in order to correct things. Breaching these dams would be like, well, like collective humankind drinking a full glass of humility. It would be one of our finest moments -- an act that stands in stark contrast to other contemporary activities glaring with unexamined hubris, like our steady plunge into biotechnology (our gleeful rush to genetically "engineer" other animals and plants to serve our own, exclusively human, purposes).
And what, after all, would have induced us to take down the dams, to reverse ourselves in this manner? Some might say that it was the Endangered Species Act that forced the breaching of the dams. Or maybe it was the native tribes -- the Umatilla, the Warm Springs, the Yakama, and the Nez Perce -- these tribes who are struggling to keep alive their own old cultural traditions so deeply intertwined with the wild salmon runs (fishing traditions that stretch back some 200 or 300 generations) and that are now threatening to sue the federal government if those dams are not breached. Or maybe it was the economic interests, like the Alaska fishing industry, or the Bonneville Power Administration, which began to realize that it might be cheaper to lose a little of its generating capacity than to continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year on elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like salmon recovery schemes that simply don't work. Or perhaps some would say that it was simply the steady rise of environmental and ecological awareness in the minds of more and more citizens throughout the Northwest. But while each of these factors will have made a difference, when we finally breach the dams, it will be, ultimately, because the salmon, themselves, induced us to do so. Because we got tired, finally, of the endless arguing among ourselves, exhausted by the constant call for further studies and the interminable bickering between our various human factions, and so decided to let another voice, another shape of intelligence, in on the conversation. It is an intelligence that speaks to us not in words, but in an eloquent language of metamorphosis, and grace, and reciprocity. A fluid voice that, once we allowed it into the conversation, could not help but begin to heal the various rifts within our communities.
It is the salmon, in their sad, eloquent way, that are instructing us to take down the dams, and we would do well to acknowledge their active influence in all this. For our own health, I suspect, we need to accept that there are other animate forces in the world besides ourselves and our own technologies. We need to acknowledge that humans are not the only active agents in the world-- that there are other kinds, other shapes, other styles of active agency.
And, in truth, the glinting speech of the salmon is not unfamiliar to us. Not only because our cultures have long been influenced and informed by these finned and fluid folks, but because their collective style of sentience stirs an echo in the very depths of our flesh, a kind of memory in the bones. For of course we too are a gift from the ocean to the land. It is a truth readily evidenced by the salt in our tears, and the saltiness of our blood: we still carry the sea within us -- we are ocean-born beings! -- swimmers who once crawled out of the brine and grew legs and began wandering up the river valleys. And so it behooves us to allow magic to move in the other direction, as well, and not to impede the flow of life from the mountains and the forests back to the wombish world of the sea. I'll draw these watery reflections to a close with a short poem by Mary Oliver:
body remembers that life and cries for
the lost parts of itself
opening like flowers into
the flesh--my legs
want to lock and become
one muscle, I swear I know
just what the blue-grey scales
the rest of me would
in that motherlap,
in that dreamhouse
of salt and exercise,
what a spillage
of nostalgia pleads
from the very bones! how
they long to give up the long trek
inland, the brittle
beauty of understanding
become again a flaming body
of blind feeling
in the luminous roughage of the sea's body
like victory inside that
insucking genesis, that
roaring flamboyance, that
conclusion of our own.