Thursday, June 23, 2016

The River of Life, and Death

I am not a religious man, but I think moving water is the best thing God ever made.  -Jim Harrison

Standing at the river’s edge, I watch sticks from old uprooted trees quiver in the foaming brown current. In the early morning sun, gulls throw down their shadows, the tips of their wings translucent against the wild blue. They wheel over our heads, dive-bombing fish guts thrown into the river from our cleaning table. They know where the good food is, and argue over every last scrap. 

The moving, life-giving water leaps and tumbles, and I imagine just below the surface long schools of salmon nosing their way upriver, eager to return to their natal grounds, like power-forwards from the sea, fighting like hell to complete another cycle in the wheel of life. It’s so simple, really. In the plant and animal worlds (ourselves included), we sprout at birth and decompose at death, feeding the earth with our compost, completing the endless circle of life that sweeps voraciously through time. 

My community is busy, checking their fishwheels hourly, making all manner of technical adjustments, like the raising and lowering of the wheel as the water level rises and falls, keeping axles on the wheel greased, predicting when the next run will hit (midnight, 6 am?). Who’s to know? It’s a finicky business catching fish. You wait and you watch; then pounce at the appropriate time. It’s all about timing, when the fish decide to come to you, the Native people say. The river has nourished them for thousands of years, my family, only decades. Still, the ritual runs deep.

But this year I take pause to think about our yearly fishing ritual in more detail. In Jonathon Balcombe’s recent book, What a Fish Knows, he overturns our assumptions about how fish perceive. He tells us they have feelings, awareness and a social order that is, in some ways, similar to those of people. Scientific research has shown that fish display tool use (at the level of a 10-month old baby who learns to use a tool to retrieve a toy she can’t reach). Fish enjoy music, have distinct personalities, and feel pain, although he uses the word “suffer,” which I’m not so sure I would agree. Sensory pain is one thing, but “suffering” denotes for me at least, a “thinking about” the pain, another layer of psychological thought placed on top the pain, creating more misery, and I think we humans have a corner on that market.

Studies have also shown that salmon farms naturally have “drop out” fish, growth stunted fish that float lifelessly at the surface of farming ponds. These fish are severely depressed. Why? Because they have given up on life. Their brain chemistry and behavior is said to mimic those of other animals with documented depression.  They are smaller in size due to “failure to thrive” (like human babies who experience stunted growth in the absence of love and affection).

Halcomb goes on to say, however, we shouldn’t eat fish because we cause them to experience an “unpleasant” death, whether by sport-fishing with lures or commercial fishing via nets. Do we then have a moral obligation to assure a pleasant death for fish (and other animals), or should we stop the killing and not eat them at all? Surely we attempt to assure a pleasant death for humans by way of hospice and palliative care that provides relief from the symptoms of serious illnesses. How should we treat our fellow winged, gilled and four-legged creatures?

Upon close inspection though, many of the writers in disagreement with the predator-prey relationship (the circle of life?) have a hidden, or not so hidden agenda. One day, they say, all people will "wake up" to the healthier and more compassionate preference of not eating, or using any type of animal products. No meat, cheese, eggs, milk, crustaceans, fish, leather, fur, or their byproducts. Some claim they intend to be patient with the education process, and are convinced, in a sort of evangelical way, that people will see the benefits of vegan-ism, and will eventually right their "erroneous" thinking on the subject.

I do not consider the life-ways of indigenous people, of whom there are many across the globe, to be erroneous.

The Native people don’t see the taking of animals as exploitation or cruelty. Their worldview encompasses the animal in a symbiotic and spiritual relationship with the human; that one dies for the express purpose of giving life to another. They believe we humans don’t walk outside the circle of life, looking through a one-way mirror at the specimens contained within. We are part and parcel of that circle, during the normal, though violent act of birth; as we live year to year and co-exist with all of life’s pain and suffering. And in the end (death is not an outrage) when we die, however peaceful or terrifying that may be.

My worry is that this homogenous way of thinking, the recruiting of people to vegan-ism, will inadvertently destroy the many varied and unique cultures of the world. The people of various cultures spring up and are defined by the landforms and weather patterns they inhabit. They have their own foods, languages and ways of being. Should the Inupiat people be prohibited from taking whale, the centerpiece of their spiritual life and the lifeblood of their people? Taking away their indigenous foods is exactly how failure to thrive and depression would show up in the people who respect and give thanks to their fellow creatures for granting them life. In all practicality, eating greens at 40 below in the vast, treeless landscape of northern Alaska will not sustain you. Though the skin and the blubber of the bowhead will.

Should those of us who harvest natural food from the living waters be advised to eat artificial instead, like shrink-wrapped meat substitutes? Imitation crabmeat made of fillers, fake flavoring and dyes? I don’t have definitive answers, but so far, I’m not convinced.

I only skim the surface like the gulls wheeling overhead, feeling stuck in this literal world above water, unable to dive deep enough to fully understand the life giving secrets of how we are so deeply connected to the food we eat. But I know in my heart of hearts what is true. Red salmon harvested from the breathing waters of the Copper River is a great gift, representing so much more than a “commodity” or a “resource.” It comes with a lightness and energy that inexplicably ties us to the natural world, a part of something much greater than anything in the supermarket isles could ever provide.

What I do know is life and death spring forth from this land, simultaneously. It is the hunters and fishermen who have taught me, through example, how deeply a people can believe in the sacredness of life, and death. When you take away venerated foods, you potentially destroy a vivid and unique culture. You destroy worldviews in which people do not dictate “right” living to others, but live their lives as people who clearly see and appreciate their rightful place not only in the world, but born of it, as integrated links to the rest of creation.

What to do when, we consider the inner lives of plants and how, as Daniel Chamovitz says in his book, What a Plant Knows, that plants too, have feelings and uprooting them causes pain? That they prefer the melodies of Bach over the rock guitar riffs of Led Zeppelin. That the discovery of talking to plants may prevent failure to thrive. That plants are aware of their surroundings.

What then, shall we eat?