The Goodness of Salmon

Our festive season here in Sydney was mostly damp: sultry and tropical at times, at other times chilly, but persistently wet, wet, wet. Whenever the rain carries on like this I think of Seattle in all its watery glory, from salt water to fresh, and from drizzle and showers through to sudden squalls and wild horizontal lashings of the most torrential rain. Love them or not, these rains are essential to the bountiful, moody, temperate rainforests that make the Pacific North West so special. The greatest concentration of biomass on earth is found in these forests, more even than in the Amazon, and one of the great scientific questions has been: how do the trees do it?

Hoh Rainforest, Elizabeth Gomm (CC)
Hoh Rainforest, Elizabeth Gomm (CC)

David Suzuki offered a surprisingly elegant and complex answer. He pointed out that while rain is essential, it is also the case that it washes nutrients out of the soil. Those months-long downpours take away nutrients at a rate that would seem to make huge forests impossible. So: where on earth does the actual fertility come from?

The Answer: Salmon!  And therein lies a true story of life’s goodness.

Sockeye salmon run, Todd Radenbaugh (CC)
Sockeye salmon, Todd Radenbaugh (CC)

The scientific analysis of the relationship between forests and salmon is fairly recent. The evidence comes from nitrogen. It is possible to distinguish two types of nitrogen, one that is land based (14N) and one that is ocean based (15N). Analysis of the forest, from trees to soils, shows that the main nutrient is ocean-based nitrogen.

Salmon hatchlings make their way to the ocean and live there for several years, consuming foods such as plankton that are rich in ocean based nitrogen. When it is time for them to spawn, they return to the river in which they hatched, swimming upstream in order to reproduce and die. Along the way they are prey to a great diversity of animals, especially bears.

Doug Brown (CC)
Doug Brown (CC)

Salmon and bears – how iconic! Bears grab fish out of the water and take them back into the forest for a private feast. They gobble up the choice bits and then return to the river for more. They transfer from river to forest upwards of 60 million kilos of salmon every year in British Columbia alone! The forests become rich in salmon carcases, and all manner of birds and other scavengers eat the remains.

The bears go on their way in the forests, pooping nitrogen rich fertilizer. The last remains of the salmon become food for flies; the flies lay eggs (on both salmon remains and poop) that hatch out as maggots and transform into pupae. Then, in a moment of perfect synchrony, zillions of nutritious flies emerge just in time for the annual northern migration of many insect-eating birds. Among them are the beautiful little olive-sided flycatchers who fly from Central and South America to the northern forests and back every year.

Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mike's Birds (CC)
Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mike’s Birds (CC)

And so vast amounts of ocean based nitrogen are transferred to the forests, their inhabitants and their visitors. Indeed, the scientists have learned that they can correlate tree rings with salmon runs: the wider and healthier the tree ring (indicating greater annual growth), the bigger the salmon run that year.

Salmon not only benefit a great diversity of other creatures, including the mighty rainforest trees, they also benefit their own offspring. After spawning, the adults die. Their bodies are consumed by fungi which are themselves consumed by bacteria and other micro-organisms. Later the young salmon feed on these same micro-organisms, building strength for their journey back to the ocean. Indeed, salmon are food for almost everyone – in the course of their travels not only are they prey to bears and birds and humans, but also to whales, seals, dolphins and sea lions, and to larger fish including sharks; their decomposing bodies are consumed by micro-organisms; as youngsters they are scooped up by snakes and water birds ~ everybody eats them! And still they thrive, and still they carry the ocean’s bounty into the freshwater rivers, and into the forests, and into other land, sea and sky creatures.

'Seal snack', Larissa Saye (CC)
‘Seal snack’, Larissa Saye (CC)

The scientific analysis is fascinating, but it barely begins to capture the wild exuberance of this story. The transformation of fish into food sustains bears, humans, eagles, crows, otters, trees, microscopic river organisms and much more. In these transformations life itself is shifted across plant, animal, fungi and other kingdoms. The great nutritional loops conjoin land, sea and air, seasonal and migratory cycles, birth and death.

Eagle with fish, Jerry McFarland (CC)
Eagle with fish, Jerry McFarland (CC)

David Suzuki wanted to make a point about management. With all the connectivities and transformations that loop through species and individuals to form ecologies, it is clear that a forest is not just a collection of trees. And yet, from a management point of view, trees are to be managed by one bureaucracy, rivers by another, oceans by another, wildlife by another, fish by another; forestry, fishermen, hunters, and a myriad other human-centric interests argue passionately about their particular part of the great system. The real issue, however, is that the health of any part of this vibrant system is integral to and dependent on other parts of the same vibrant system. In Suzuki’s words, ‘… if we keep looking at our own self-interest without seeing the big picture … we are going to screw it up for sure.’

More than forests are at stake here – more than trees and salmon, more than bears and micro-organisms. The wildly entwined loops of transformation are the very practice of goodness in Earth life. The goodness of salmon, as with all goodness, lies both in their lives as lived for themselves and their offspring, and in the benefits others gain from them.

In a human-centric world of narrow ‘self-interest’ and stubborn resistance to recognition of entangled connectivities, it is good, I find, to think of the philosopher Lev Shestov. He argued for a kind of craziness that is exactly what is needed here. Craziness for Shestov meant that a person would immerse themselves in life that is specific in its time and place, situated in awareness of its entanglements with others, and fully committed to the complexities of birth and death. His craziness is a commitment to transience, flux and uncertainty, and perhaps part of the craziness is that none of these qualities offers a promise that leads to human complacency. Rather, uncertainty means that nothing can be taken for granted. And so craziness goes hand in hand with Earth’s exuberance. It offers joy in the form of commitment to transformation, metamorphosis, synchronicity, and shared, looping connectivities.

Mills (CC)
‘Tree of LIfe’, Mills (CC)

For us humans, to become crazy-in-love with the living world would mean becoming crazy for salmon and crazy for bears, crazy for forests, fungi, clear running rivers, healthy oceans, migrating birds, nitrogen and much more. We would become absolutely crazy for goodness.

At the end of the day, goodness is the way and the truth of living creatures, and craziness is a human being’s way of remaining part of it.

I find it hard to imagine becoming crazy for rain. Even while I treasure its gifts of life, the truth is that day after day of the stuff makes me fretful. It was a great delight, therefore, when the sun returned for a day or two. And so it is in this world of flux: nothing lasts forever, except perhaps the great earth herself, and change is yet another aspect of goodness.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)


David Suzuki spoke on the Science Show (ABC Radio National – listen here).

Scientific research on salmon, bears and forests has been carried by Tom Reimchen, and James Helfield and Robert Naiman (among others).

9 thoughts on “The Goodness of Salmon

  1. Thank-you, Deborah, a lovely and pertinent piece of writing. I love this:

    “The goodness of salmon, as with all goodness, lies both in their lives as lived for themselves and their offspring, and in the benefits others gain from them.”

    It reminds me of a crucial aspect of J. Claude Evans’ refutation of Paul Taylor’s Respect for Nature. Taylor, like so many people, tends towards what Val Plumwood called use/respect dualism. Evans wrote:

    “When we think concretely, no living thing can be considered adequately in isolation from its place in a web of life in which everything lives by appropriating from the surrounding world the energy and nutrition it needs. The inherent worth of any living thing is inextricably bound up with the instrumental value of the energy and nutrition it appropriates from its environment, often enough from other living things; inherent value and instrumental value are intertwined with one another. To respect the inherent value of one being requires respect for its instrumental use of and to other beings. Put in Paul Taylor’s terms, I show that there is no inherent worth (a being that has or pursues its own good) without instrumental value (that which is appropriated when such a being pursues its own good). This is not changed when that which is appropriated itself has inherent worth.”

    (With Respect for Nature xiii)

    1. That’s a great point, Russell. I wonder if we should try to get away from the term ‘instrumental’ altogether because of the way it seems to reference a domain of thought that in general is not helpful. I’ll be thinking about this! Thanks for the intellectual nourishment.

      1. Great point! I hadn’t really thought of the word that way. An instrument is an object. “Instrumental” as term seems to lock in the idea that the giver is reduced to *nothing more than* an instrument, an object of exploitation. I feel the same way about the categorisation of material participation in nature (fishing, hunting, foraging) as “consumptive use”. It presupposes that any use of other-than-human beings reduces them to objects (“natural resources”) and depletes their collective value (“consumes” them), and ignores what ecosystems actually are: self-generating networks of material exchange, communities of givers and receivers of which we, too, are part. To me “take only photographs” as an overarching principle is no more respectful than refusing to partake of the hospitality of a host who offers you food. Receiving instrumental value from another person does not degrade them – it actually honours and respects them in a way that refusal does not. It’s attempting to value them as distant, self-enclosed individuals while failing to value your relationship with them. Perhaps “instrumental” should be replaced with “relational” or “nurturative”.

        I can’t wait to read what you come up with on this. You have such a way with words. In my collection of favoured snippets, I have this from you:

        “Country is the place of belonging. The people, the other living things, the waters and soils, rains and winds all bring each other into being, nurturing and impacting on each other. Linear models of cause and effect are too simple to describe the dynamic, symbiotic, kinship-based, mutually nurturant and sometimes predatory relationships between people, non-human beings and place. What happens to one affects what happens to another; but most importantly, all have long-term commitments to these relationships that nurture their lives.” (Nourishing Terrains 116)

  2. Thank you Deborah for the articles,

    I am happy to see that you are now well enough to resume writing, because I love reading your work, it does sound very selfish, but it is true

    Ever since I have read your articles “Exploring an Aboriginal land ethic “and “Consciousness and Responsibility in an Australian Aboriginal religion” many years ago, I have been reading your books and learning a lot from them. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and hope that your remission is, like my brother’s, permanent


    1. I really appreciate your comment. It doesn’t seem selfish to me – your warmth gives me good reason to continue. Cheers!

  3. Thanks for a great discussion. To my mind, “instrumental” implies a means one appropriates so that it now fully adheres to one’s life and no longer imbricates one in the lives of others. As if nothing truly pertaining to “me” were created through the measures and powers proffered by others. This never happens, of course. So might not this term be replaced with a notion of “gifted means,” which would imply a means afforded one beyond one’s capacity to take it merely as one’s own?

  4. This beautiful reflective piece really hits the spot for me Deb. It takes me back to my time in the Pacific North West, watching the salmon spawn by their millions along Vancouver Island’s monumental forested western coastline, spotting the bears in waiting for them up the river estuaries and seeing the birds flocking in to eat the carcasses. It’s such a powerful, and as you say, ‘iconic’ scene of the ‘wild exuberance’ of the returns of life and death – etched on my memory forever. It’s a time I also associate warmly with your extraordinary contributions to our Common World Childhoods Research Collective ‘Learning to inherit’ symposium at University of Victoria BC. You spoke there so passionately about ‘goodness’ too, provoking me to reframe my cynicism about the rather saccharine kind of ‘goody – goodness’ that pervades the field of early childhood education with a much more ecological notion of goodness – particular in relation to the gusto, energy and exuberance of young life in the bigger scheme of things. I’ve just had my grandkids to stay at Wee Jasper, so I’m still feeling it.
    Thank you.

  5. Wow- 2016 has gotten off with a great start for me as I am soooo happy to read your posts Deborah! Your writing is so nourishing – my brain eats your words up, lighting up healthy neurons of new thinking -if that makes sense!!
    In great appreciation,

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