Let the beauty we love,
be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
The Farmwife Diaries
Coyote & Coho and the Call of Affection
On this merry Christmas morning, after the kids gorged on gifts and games, we all walked down to the creek to see if we could see a salmon. ‘Tis the season of the Coho-ho-ho migration and catching sight of a fish always makes us feel proud and gratified, even though we are not of the Oncorhynchus ourselves. The anticipation is like waiting for a friend at the end of an ultra aqua marathon; it’s called a salmon ‘run’ after all. And here at the upstream end of the course, one experiences a wave of empathetic relief and joy that the finish line is in sight. With salmon, this is tempered by the poignant fact that the ‘finish line’ is truly the fish’s finish.
The salmon homecoming here, however, is more than the tale of one fish swimming up a creek through the farm. It’s an ancient epic, one that tells truths about the state of the ecosystem and I think too, about the health of our hearts. It’s a testimony for the fortitude of life and a tribute to nature’s persistence. Witnessing the salmon return is a ten thousand year old tradition in these waters and represents a spiritual pact between people and the wild. And today, searching for the salmon also represented the quest for an antidote to acquisition and affluenza. We want to teach our children that it’s not about the presents and materials things, but about the presence of wild things.
The walk down to the creek takes us down hill in front of the house and along the path past the wayward blackberry hedge that threatens a thorny doom to the oblivious. My 11 year old son River asks permission to defend us and then beats back the barbaric branches with a stick. I appreciate his impulses both to protect and to pulverize, one of the many oxymorons of manhood it seems. We walk through the old wooden gate into the protected riparian area and ring the little brass bell that dangles there; it’s a ritual of mindfulness that announces our passage to ourselves and to anyone else who may care.
At what we call “creek beach” Chimacum Creek is perhaps ten feet wide this time of year and only several feet deep. The rains have not been very heavy this winter and we can walk to edge of the water without sinking into the mud. The creekside is a tangle of alders and evergreens that create a sheltered haven, thanks to twenty years of reforestation efforts, and it’s a sweet place to linger and listen to gurgling waters, birdsong and the swishing and wishing of leaves. We stand by the stream for a few minutes, peering into the shadowy ripples. The scene is seemingly fishless, until we turn to go. Just then, there is a great riffling splash and we watch the sleek body of a salmon bound back downstream and swim into a quiet pool. It happens quickly and I feel a pang of concern that we frightened the fish in the wrong direction. After all of that effort to swim upstream, I’d feel lousy if we set the salmon back. But upon consideration of my own journey, my own jumping, flapping and flailing upstream over the years, I realize that I too yearn to ease myself back, to float downstream into a sunny pool and just hover for a bit in calm waters. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to let yourself sit back once awhile. So we leave the fish alone, with the murmuring quiet of the creek, and feel the gift of that one rippling glimpse into salmon life.
In reflecting back on this year, I realize how the ‘presence of wild things’ has kept me sane, offering a wake-up yowl when the mandates of work make me forget the most important things. For example, there was coyote around the farm earlier this winter. It’s not unusual to hear them yipping and barking at dusk, and occasionally we catch a glimpse, like a mythical apparition, of a brown furry blur loping in the distance. But this particular coyote crossed paths with me three times, up close and in the four-legged flesh. On each occasion, the coyote stopped in its tracks and stared at me, shocking me out of a complacence I did not even know I felt. Each encounter stretched wide, as if time stopped, and I felt a tingle of strangeness in the intensity of that stare. Maybe it was love at first site? It felt like a reunion. It felt like I was receiving a transmission, an elusive and illuminating riddle about my nature and about the nature of Nature. Maybe it was one of those absolute Zen truths that gets ruined when you put it into words, like a koan. The coyote encounters formed a question in my imagination and left an aftertaste of affection and wonder in my heart.
Even though I can be blind to it when I am counting my emails, it’s not unusual to encounter wildlife in our remote rural valley. A great blue heron resides along this stretch of Chimacum Creek and we regularly see it flapping its wide wings back and forth above the stream. My son and I saw two river otters scampering in the same creek last year and it was better than going to the circus. Bald eagles circle and screech over the fields, scoping out the chickens in search of snacks and perching presidentially on the tippy tops of the fir trees. There was a weasel who did in some ducks last year. And we think a cougar killed our small goat herd last summer, which was the sad and bloody end of the Finnriver goat operation, but also a grudgingly glad acknowledgement that there are still predators here. And every other year or so a black bear is spotted lumbering across a nearby field or battering a fence or we see a pile of some mighty manure that only a bear could make.
Then there are the trumpeter swans, who spend winters in the moist green pastures of Center Valley and look like a flock of angels on a holy pilgrimage. They are the largest waterfowl in North America, pure white with a 6-8 foot wingspan, so bright and so beautiful it takes your breath away. You sort of can’t believe it when you see them, even if you see them every day. The seasonal migration of the swans has become a very significant part of our year, a cyclical myth that helps bring light to the short, dark days of winter. We hear the swans honking in the mornings as they fly from a nearby lake to Roger’s fields, and then again at dusk, as they head back. Their honking has conditioned us to automatic exclamations of exuberance whenever we hear them pass. “Swans!” we holler and wave our arms, as if by flapping hard enough we could join them on the wing. Like the salmon migration, this is another ritual of witnessing that connects us to wildness on this land. This year, perhaps because of the cold, the swans were late arriving and it was very alarming. Should the swans ever fail to come, we will feel that wrongness has prevailed in the world. For now, we count ourselves blessed by their presence.
I know we humans are not alone on this land but it’s always good to be reminded, even when those reminders eat our crops or livestock. That is the way of the wild. Sometimes our paths cross with other creatures, in the sky or stream or fields, and sometimes we just hear their splashes, honks and yelps. By sight or sound, my own humanity is deepened by each of these encounters. This year, the animals reminded me that I need to tame my wayward, hectic mind and that I need to re-wild my humble, beating heart.
My resolution for the new year is to be a better witness to the wildness around and within me. To know that each salmon sighting is a call to the present. Each swan flight is a call to beauty. Each coyote howl, heard with the heart, is a call to mystery and affection for all earth.