Salmon is our most bountiful wild food source, and we think of them as coming “home” when they return to the streams where we harvest them. But they are at home throughout their range—in the places where they live their seasons of adulthood as well as they gravel where they emerge or the splashing pools where they finally fall away. The challenge of loving the salmon who come home to the place where we wait for them is that we forget about all the parts of their lives that they spend away. They are at home in all those places and they live in all the places throughout their range. We often connect our desire to act—to protect them—to the place where they come “home.” But the home that they need is everywhere where they live.
Baby coho salmon, while still smaller than the size of a pinky finger, spread out over great ranges, sometimes transiting miles or even tens of miles in this juvenile stage. If we imagine them to need only those streams where they have spawned, we miss the enormous complexity of the watery lands that support them. Any Alaskan child who has walked, eyes down, through a forest or field, will have seen these tiny “minnows” flitting about in the shadow of creekside grass, or moving through the dappled light in the rivulet of a stream passing beneath a cottonwood tree. These are the homes of our salmon. These swampy places are no less important than the shallow streambed where we saw the parent generation spawn and die.
We grow frustrated when we attempt to take steps to safeguard our salmon, only to find that our actions in our backyards or in our boroughs or in our watershed don’t seem to be enough. We learn about and focus our efforts on stream bank restoration, for example, but we find that climate change is taking bites out of our fish faster than we can act to restore them. We temper our own harvest, taking only what we need so nothing remains in our freezer at year’s end; but we know that others downstream from us or out in the marine system are harvesting in numbers that surpass our own impact. The feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. Our individual actions feels insignificant against the 1,000 cuts that strike at our fish.
The salmon is a microcosmic example of our entire global system. Everything in the world around us is spinning faster and faster; our impacts are spiraling out around us. Our desire to rein things in, or to find something sane in the whirl of the storm, feels more and more unattainable, even as we reach for it.
Our systems are so large, so all-encompassing. Words printed in books of law are meant to encompass the circumstances in a brackish estuary tucked alongside the highway in the Mat-Su, at the same time they are meant to govern the clear-running waters of a snow-fed Kodiak river, or the wide exhale of the Kuskokwim as it drains marsh and grassland and creek for tens of millions of acres of watery land.
Where do we start amidst all this confusion?
One possible answer, one tiny piece of the puzzle: must reach out and touch our local elected officials. We must ask them to go to their work with our values in mind. These values of family, of land, of the import of the whole system, not just the too-visible places.