12. Seattle and Salmon
This whole project got off the ground because I read the Donald Worster book, Rivers of Empire, on my nephew Josh’s recommendation, so what could be more reasonable than to read another book about rivers in the West that Josh swears is great? This one is called The Organic Machine: the remaking of the Columbia River, by Richard White. And it’s short – despite the fact that it takes ten pages of small print to list the book’s sources, Professor White has been kind enough to distill his thoughts into a mere 113 pages. What more could I ask?
Nothing, really. This book turns out to be exactly on my wavelength. It confirms what I’ve been thinking for a while now: it makes no sense to think of human beings as separate from nature, even when we demonstrably screw it up. The title of White’s book says this: we have to accept the paradox inherent in the phrase “organic machine.” In his introduction he totally embraces messy thinking: “This is a book which seeks to blur boundaries, emphasize impurity, and find, paradoxically, along those blurred and dirty boundaries ways to better live with our dilemmas.” Heterogeneity if I ever saw it. Will it be “S” thinking or “G” thinking? Inquiring minds want to know.
The history of the Columbia is a good bit like the history of the Colorado, in the sense that it has been dammed and controlled to the point where it hardly resembles its former self. The difference is that where the human use of the Colorado is mostly about irrigation, or drinking water, the key to the remaking of the Columbia is hydroelectric power. It reminds me that in Canadian, “hydro” can be a synonym for “electricity,” as in “I’ve got to get the hydro hooked up before I can move in.” The same seems to be true in the Northwest, where for a good while there was more electric power being generated by the river than there was demand for it.
White’s book is all about man’s work, the river’s work, and fish. The major player in White’s book, one Worster and Reisner only mention in passing, is salmon. There’s no need to hunt around for a protagonist here. The salmon is it, from the start. But that doesn’t mean that Man is simply the bad guy; White’s aim is, as he says, “to understand rather than denounce.”
White adds a bunch of new thoughts to the puzzle about us and nature. Because he pays so much attention to man’s work on the river – Indians fishing, explorers paddling, workers building dams – he brings out something no one else seems to have said: there’s nature in our bodies, in our muscles. We aren’t just a bunch of minds making policy decisions. When we actually work in the natural world, we know nature through labor, and we are nature in the strength and limitations of our physical beings. Which is something I can appreciate, from my experience cutting spruces, clearing brush, and hauling off cut branches up in P.E.I. You can look at the trees along the shore and think of clearing and limbing to create a view of the Strait, but you never know what you’re dealing with until you walk over there with your bow saw, your loppers and your chain saw. You cut limbs one by one; you make choices tree by tree. You begin to understand how they grow and what the wind and weather do to them. I’ve learned by now to recognize that some of the stunted little spruces close to the edge of the bank will never grow taller, and to know when lower branches have started to lose their needles for good. I’ve learned that spruce trees aren’t just crowding each other when they grow in clumps; they’re surviving the wind. For years of their lives, the unit of spruce isn’t one tree, it’s one clump, until one tree finally outgrows the rest. But if you try to choose that one and cut the others too soon, the chosen one may be in trouble. There’s no other way to find these things out except tree by tree and year by year. Plus I have found out just how strong I am not, by trying to drag off heaps of cut brush. So yeah. Nature outside and in.
On the Columbia there was great hope that electric power at “postage-stamp rates” would relieve humans of back-breaking labor. Hydro would replace the polluted coal-fired industrial city and put in its place what Lewis Mumford called the Neotechnic. “Electricity would promote independence and decentralization”; “electricity would restore workers to the countryside.” Shades of both the promised benefits of irrigation, and Worster’s vision for a West of self-governing watersheds. The Grand Coulee Dam would be “the final piece necessary to reveal nature’s latent harmony.” I’m not shocked to find that none of these hopes, except power at low cost, were realized. It’s the same story I’ve read before, of absolute faith in man’s technical ingenuity, coupled with “rural nostalgia,” and leading to consequences no one quite imagined until it was too late. This time it’s founded in a vision that comes out of Emerson by way of Lewis Mumford, in which man and nature would work hand in hand. “The time had come for the organic to ‘complicate the mechanical . . . to make it more organic [and] . . . more harmonious with our living environment.’” In the society Mumford projected, “nature became an active component of culture, and culture, in turn, ‘became a second nature.’”
Or how about this? “Nature is no longer an absolute: or rather, we no longer regard nature as if man himself were not implicated in her, as if his modifications of nature were not themselves a part of the natural order to which he is born.” That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking; Lewis Mumford was writing it in the 30’s. And look how it turned out – which means I’d better think again. Yet White, true to his premise, doesn’t make Mumford a bad guy either, even though he provided the intellectual foundation for so many dams. Naïve would be more like it.
What is bad, unequivocally bad, is what has happened to the salmon. The lives of Pacific Northwest Indians were structured around the salmon, which were so plentiful that the Northwest was the one place where Lewis and Clark ever saw a fat Indian. Salmon runs, on a scale that I find impossible to imagine, were the norm until dams were built that turned the river into “a series of giant slack-water ponds, the river’s energy turning turbines: pumps lifting its waters into canals, its bed a highway for barges.” It has become increasingly difficult and unlikely for a salmon to make its way upstream to spawn, and when it does succeed (or when smolts are produced in hatcheries), the young fish are likely to be killed when they go through the turbines or, for that matter, when they are spilled over the tops of dams. A salmon today is “born in a hatchery, skimmed up at a dam, transported downriver in a barge.” “Hatchery fish . . . appeared to be ‘less well adapted to the extremes of freshwater and saltwater environment than wild fish,’ less able to cope with predators, and less hardy. Hatcheries lessened the genetic diversity of the species and were more vulnerable to disease.” We have definitively messed up, and as usual, our technical fixes for problems we’ve created have created problems of their own. And if this were the whole point of White’s book, it wouldn’t be much different from Worster’s or Reisner’s. But White takes a different turn that seems more radical. He is a real “G” thinker.
“And yet simply to renounce development on the Columbia [exactly what Worster would do] is equally to miss the point. We can’t treat the river as if it is simply nature and all dams, hatcheries, channels, pumps, cities, ranches, and pulp mills are ugly and unnecessary blotches on a still coherent natural system. These things are now part of the river itself. There are reasons they are there. They are not going to vanish, and they cannot simply be erased. Some would reduce the consequences to a cautionary tale of the need to leave nature alone. But to do so is to lose the central insight of the Columbia: there is no clear line between us and nature.”
Blotches on a still coherent natural system: this phrase sticks out for me. There’s something crucial about it. What does “coherence” mean, anyway? If it means that the parts of the system function together without totally contradicting each other, then no, the Columbia doesn’t have coherence, because you can’t seem to put salmon and hydro power together on the same river. Or to turn the puzzle a different way, maybe the river today does have a coherence that includes us and our creations – but excludes salmon. But we refuse to accept excluding salmon. As White says, “even in their decline, salmon remain culturally as powerful as when they passed upriver in a flood of abundant life. They are repositories of meaning. People still desire salmon. Salmon symbolize nature in the Pacific Northwest; the experience of taking them has become a quintessential Northwest experience. Salmon are not just fish on the Columbia; they are tokens of a way of life.”
I happen to know someone who grew up in Seattle and now lives there again, a former grad student named Julianne. I e-mail her and ask her about salmon runs, and this is what she sends me:
Will definitely let you know if I come across anything regarding how the salmon runs are doing! Last thing I heard, not well, but that’s no surprise. (Does, however, bring me back to elementary school days of squatting amongst noxious-smelling skunk cabbages while releasing salmon hatchlings into the neighboring creek. Part of the science portion of class, but all I really recall is the melancholy pull of watching those tiny, nick-named fish disappear beneath the water and reeds and the seeming impossibility of something so small surviving the voyage out to something so big–Puget Sound–then back again.)
“The melancholy pull,” huh? That Julianne always could write. And how much clearer could it be that salmon really are “repositories of meaning” for her?
So either way, you’re looking at a contradiction. In one case, the contradiction is between physical/biological realities (salmon’s needs vs. dams and turbines); in the other, the contradiction is between reality and our wishes. The meaning carried by salmon, for people, is part of the system, irreplaceable and non-negotiable. If we can’t go back, and White is adamantly clear on that point, then we have to go forward. “S” or “G” thinking would say that we have to find a way to harmonize power and salmon in a new pattern of relations, and that’s clearly what White wants us to do, even though our track record stinks. We’re no good at thinking about the river as a whole – “about fish and justice, about electricity and ways of life, about production and nature.” “What is real is the mixture, and we seem unable to come to terms with this even though we have created it.” “Our tendency to break it into parts does not work.” You can’t get much more blunt than that. Still, we’ve got to get beyond this stuck point, or once again, liquor is quicker.
Can we find a new pattern of beneficial relations that, as “S” would have it, can then remain stable? I’m not the prophet who can answer that one, but the history seems to say no. You introduce a bunch of us technically ingenious capitalist humans into the American West, or pretty much any corner of the world, and things do not remain stable, to say the least. Which leaves “G”: a new pattern of relations has evolved and is evolving and isn’t staying stable, and it won’t. If that’s so, we need to find mutually beneficial relations on the fly, as it were, knowing that they won’t remain in effect forever. This approach would say that the search for a perfect compromise is pointless. There isn’t going to be one.
This seems to be where The Organic Machine leaves it: there is no such thing as disentangling man from nature, and if you accept that, which apparently we aren’t very good at doing, you’re standing at the jumping-off point for an unpredictable future. You aren’t going back to anything (and the notion of going back is probably “rural nostalgia” anyway), reductionistic analysis doesn’t work, and if you should luckily stumble into a new way that looks like an answer, it’s only going to be an answer for a while.
There is a kind of postscript to this book, which was published in 1995. I happen to find a PDF of a lecture Professor White gave at UC Davis in 1999, called “The Problem with Purity.” It’s a wonderful piece of work, basically saying that we hold contradictory values and think in paradoxical ways, that we are “the ultimate hybrids of the cultural and the natural,” and that this is the good news. It waves the banner of messy thinking without reservation. And in this lecture is an anecdote about a run of sockeye salmon into Lake Washington, in Seattle, in 1996. This salmon run was almost totally anomalous. In the first place, salmon never went into Lake Washington until the twentieth century, when a ship channel was built that connected it with Puget Sound. These were hatchery fish returning to the hatchery on the UW campus. Their appearance in great numbers was the result of a confluence of favorable conditions in the ocean, not to be relied upon to repeat itself. But. “The fish became the leading tourist attraction in Seattle during their run, and most of the people who came to see them lived in the city and its suburbs. And, at first, I thought that they were there because the return of the fish reminded them of what the region had been before the salmon declined. They were there to recollect a fuller past. But given the demographics of Seattle, this is unlikely. Most adult Seattleites didn’t live there when salmon were abundant. They came to see the salmon, I think, in order to glimpse a possible future that contained Seattle and salmon. They were there to see a hybrid world that, at least for a few weeks, worked.”
Why do tears come to my eyes when I type this passage into my computer? I’ve never been to Seattle, or witnessed a salmon run. What is going on here? Why do I feel I share in that public outpouring of love for the salmon? Are they repositories of meaning even for me?
I put a camera in my pocket and get on my bicycle. Back to the Alewife subway stop, which sits in a complicated geographical nexus where main roads converge, the subway line ends, and the Little River flows under Route 2 and is then called Alewife Brook. It’s in the middle of the Alewife Reservation, and there are bike trails and walking trails all over the place. The bikeway that leads to Arlington, Mill Brook, and the Res runs by the subway station and its giant parking garage. I’ve poked around this area before, trying to find out if it’s the culvert under Route 2 that has caused the Little River to be so silted up. I already discovered a few trails that were well worth finding. There’s a point where an overpass crosses over an onramp to Route 2 which is, like many such places, an access point. No one driving by in a car, focusing on getting on the highway, would ever notice this, but on a bicycle or on foot the world has much finer detail. On either side of the overpass, along the foot of the embankment, there’s a path made by people’s feet. On one side, the path leads to a fairly sizable pond, across the road from the parking garage, where geese upend themselves to root in the mud of the bottom, and ducks make paths through the floating weed. Turtles sun themselves on logs. A person can sit under the massive gnarled branches of an old tree and contemplate this scene, maybe thirty feet from the roadway, undisturbed and undistracted. It’s a very short walk, yet once again, taking it seems to expand both space and time.
On the other side of the overpass is a smaller body of water, on which water lilies are growing. The path on this side leads to a clearing used by homeless people; there are shopping carts there, the usual plastic milk crates, a couple of chairs, a piece of plywood in use as a table. Rolls of toilet paper. Empty beer cans, soda cans, Luna Bar wrappers. Newspapers. This spot has a beautiful view, looking out over the smaller pond, which I’ve photographed before. At the time, I met a couple of young black men there and chatted with them for a while; they seemed the opposite of the stereotype of homeless people. As soon as they figured out I wasn’t going to hassle them, they brightened up and were happy to talk about the birds and animals they’d seen there. They reminded me of college students. They had better bicycles than mine, which they kindly pronounced “old school.” When I said most people never experience this, even though it’s so close to the road, one said, “Most people are too programmed to do this.” No doubt about that; during a normal school year, I’m far too programmed to have time for this sort of thing.
I did eventually locate the spot where the Little River flows under Route 2 (and yet another homeless person encampment). The culvert turned out not to be creating a bottleneck in the flow, so I never figured that out, but I was rewarded by seeing some small rats going about their business along the edge of the river. When I held still, they ignored me, and when I moved, they slipped into the water and swam away.
This time, I try some different trails on my bike and eventually I end up at the back of the parking garage, where a stream is running by its tall, curved, graffiti’d concrete wall. At the point where the stream emerges from a culvert it is labeled: WARNING WET WEATHER SEWAGE DISCHARGE CITY OF CAMBRIDGE OUTFALL NO. CAM401A. Presumably in a heavy rain, the sewers exceed their capacity, storm runoff mixes with sewage, and some of it comes out here. Could there be 401 such outfall points in Cambridge alone? I have no idea. There’s a piece of familiar pink tape tied to a tree that reads WETLAND DELINEATION. Before starting this project, when I thought “wetland,” this would not have been what I thought of. But that doesn’t stop it from being one. In principle, wetlands have the ability to purify water by biological means, so in a sense, if there must be a combined sewage outfall, maybe this is where it should go. Much better for there not to be one, of course.
But the peculiar truth is that the place appeals to me. If it weren’t for the sign, the idea of sewage would not have crossed my mind, and somehow the graffiti and the rough concrete complement this totally unprepossessing waterway in a peaceable fashion. I can’t figure out why, but the graffiti in this context seem quieter than graffiti elsewhere and less disruptive. The situation forms some sort of whole, or else this is entirely my mindscape projecting itself on the environment. Anyway, I photograph it from a number of angles and then go on my way, satisfied with my expedition.
Back home, I pick up a little book I read several years ago, called Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Poets & Philosophers. Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that is associated with tea ceremony – I can’t remember what caused me to acquire this book in the first place – and, it turns out, wabi-sabi is also a way to think about the place I just saw. “Wabi-sabi,” the author (Leonard Koren) says, “is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view.”
That pretty much says it all. Sewage outfall? Ugly. Graffiti? Also ugly, at least some of the time. But somehow beauty spontaneously occurred, given my point of view. Can my pictures pass the experience on? Maybe not: “Things wabi-sabi are appreciated only during direct contact and use.”
“Things wabi-sabi easily coexist with the rest of their environment”: exactly what the graffiti are doing. “Things wabi-sabi can appear coarse and unrefined.”
“They are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment. They record the sun, wind, rain, heat, and cold in a language of discoloration, rust, tarnish, stain . . . a testament to histories of use and misuse.”
Damn! Who knew there was wabi-sabi right over there at the subway stop? I read the book over again – it only takes about half an hour – and it now seems like a different way of saying things I’ve found in wildly different places: Maruyama’s “G” mindscape superseding the “H,” Worster’s reference to wu wei, the admonition to “DO NOTHING,” the notion that in the midst of ceaseless evolution, beginnings and ends are fictitious constructs. It seems that the project has gained the power to magnetize disparate pieces of knowledge and draw them into itself, to align them and make them seem mysteriously relevant or inevitably destined to connect. I’m passing over the event horizon of some idea yet to be defined.