It was once again Yom Kippur, and I was north of Seattle, at Squire Creek. Sunlight dazzled between rainstorms. Around me, uprooted, wind-worn trees lay scattered like I Ching sticks. Squire Creek forked, with one thin spur dead-ending in rock and shifting sandbars.
As a child, all I knew of Yom Kippur were the long temple services, the stiff clothes, and the ritual fast that prohibited food or water. I never asked my father, the most observant one in our family, what he experienced on what is considered the holiest day of the year. My father, dead some 15 years, was a fading memory, and my prayers were halting. I slipped my hand into Squire Creek’s cold water and wondered if what I had read was true, that Yom Kippur’s sundown-to-sundown fast and seemingly interminable services were intended to lead not to guilt but to joy and a repaired harmony in our relationship not just with family and community, but with God.
I sat near a pool where the water was still and dark. In it, dying pink salmon circled beneath a slow, swirling mosaic of gold conifer needles, amber cedar fronds, and bits of ebony-edged bone lichen. I found a pink salmon stranded at the pool’s edge. He had the look of a pugilist battling unfavorable odds — a dark squat body, fanged distended jaws. Fungus, as gold as an ancient coin, tinged the pink’s humped back. His jaws pumped open-shut-open-shut, pushing sand and iridescent water over his gills.
It had been two years since I last saw pink salmon. In the coastal streams of Asia and North America that still have salmon, one run of pinks will spawn in each even-numbered year, while a second, genetically distinct run spawns in odd-numbered years. Washington state’s pinks spawn almost exclusively in odd-numbered years. In that visit two years before, Squire Creek had shimmered in its flow past western redcedar trees. RVs had rumbled into the creekside campground. I’d heard the steady pounding of State Route 530’s traffic echoing past horse pastures and roadside espresso huts.
I’d stood shivering in that distant fall day’s thin rain, realizing that what I had at first thought were stones and twists of current were instead pink salmon holding still, facing upstream and resisting the fast downstream flow of water. Their white underbellies blended with the mottled stones beneath them. Three, four, a dozen were nearly hidden in the dull, shifting light reflecting off the creek. The males’ humps protruded above the water, then sank beneath the flow and rose up again, an elusive clue to their presence.
The pink salmon twitching at my feet this year was probably conceived during that distant fall run. I leaned back against an uprooted tree and watched him. Gold and silver motes swirled in the morning light above the dying fish. He lay flat against the stones and clear water at the pool’s edge. His speckled olive-grey tail jerked up. He was still again.
Brief weeks before, the pink was sleek and silvery as he traversed the North Pacific and Puget Sound. Following the age-old cycle, the pink left the estuary and swam upstream. His muscles softened. His body darkened, and his skin thickened. Hooked jaws and the male’s characteristic hump formed. His gonads matured for mating, his digestive organs atrophied, and he stopped feeding. He began living off his own body’s stored fat.
This pink was at the end of a short, two-year life, and weakening. The creek’s fast current must have pushed him from the deep water into the pool where the creek had cut into its bank. Pale rain-soft bodies of dead pink and Chinook salmon were tangled in the dirtflecked roots of alder, cedar, and fir. Yet this still-living lone pink is one of the lucky ones. Pinks are the most abundant of Pacific salmon, but upward of an estimated 95 percent fall prey to fishing fleets and the waiting jaws of a vast ocean.
The pink’s tail heaved. Smack. The fish was still. Another heave. Smack. Smack. His soft belly was now firm against the gravel. His dark fungus-mottled body towered above the clear water. He jerked his tail back and forth, back and forth. He swam forward, toward me and away from the pool’s center. He swam to where the trickle of creek ended in gritty sand and broken twigs. He fell back on his side. He was still, except for the slow pumping of his jaws.
I was raised to be afraid of death, the end of life, the void — my father’s stroke, the pneumonia the doctors said would kill him. Only my father didn’t die then, just as he didn’t die after another round of pneumonia, and eventually the doctors said they no longer knew when he would die, that they could only promise my father’s life would continue on for days, weeks, months, possibly years in a white walled hospital room filled with dripping IVs, whispers, silence.
This pink’s impending death is not the death I was taught to fear. It is not death at all if death means finality, cessation, rupture. In their death, salmon are the great gift of life.
Excerpted with permission from Turning Homeward: Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild by Adrienne Ross Scanlan, Mountaineers Books, Seattle, 2016.
For over 20 years, Adrienne Ross Scanlan has immersed herself as a volunteer in all things nature: as a citizen scientist monitoring salmon runs for county and local agencies, a restoration volunteer salvaging native plants and removing invasive weeds, and as a docent at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and Wolf Haven in Tenino, Washington. Adrienne’s writing has appeared in a variety of literary publications, including City Creatures, Pilgrimage, The Fourth River, Rikkun, and Tiny Lights. She has received a Seattle Arts Commission award and an Artist Trust Washington State Literature Fellowship.