A Different Kettle of Fish

Mill Valley Public Library interviews Derrick Jensen about salmon.
Salmon in Indian River (Sitka, AK)

The first time I ever saw salmon was in Halibut Cove Lagoon off the Kachemak Bay across the spit of Homer, Alaska. My friend identified the two of them as pinks and she thought that they were lost. We were spending the night in a cabin run by the state park system that is only accessible at high tide. As we neared the steps of the dock a porpoise breached the surface and all aboard turned around to attempt to spot it surface once more but instead saw – and heard – an eagle flying across the lagoon. It was my first (figuratively) jaw-dropping moment in Alaska and within the hour we saw a black bear foraging on the shore from the steps of the cabin. Soon after the bear spotting, we walked to a nearby dock and I saw halibut for the first time, though they were dead and gutted. And it was from there that we saw the pair of salmon. I was exhilarated. I was leaps and bounds more excited to see salmon for the first time than when I saw moose for the first time, only a few days before. 

The salmon didn’t breach the water like the porpoise nor did they speedily soar over the lagoon like the eagle. They simply swam into the shallows for a moment and then slowly swam out of sight. And that moment was much more exciting to me than seeing the bear forage on the shore or moose munching willow in the wild. I’ve been fascinated by salmon for years. In the most simple terms, everything about their life cycle and relation to their habitat intrigue me. And because of that, I didn’t know how to approach an interview with Derrick Jensen about salmon. I didn’t want the conversation to just be two dudes talking about their mutual appreciation of salmon. The day before the interview, I only had two prepared questions. One is the first question that I ask in the interview. I didn’t even ask the second question, which was really just a variant of the first question but about salmon instead of people. 

But I cobbled together some more questions by reviewing the questions I had not asked during our first interview. After the first interview, it felt to me, and I hope so for Derrick too, that there was plenty more to say. I’m hopeful that our conversation about salmon is the first of a miniseries of sorts within the Borrowed Time series. Our next conversation will be about redwoods, which seems like an appropriate segue because of the relation between salmon and forest. Plus, Jensen has written a book (Strangely Like War) about deforestation. 

In our discussion on salmon, Jensen mentions a photo sent to him from Alaska of a river that appeared pure brown that proved to be full of salmon. I had the opportunity to live in Alaska for a year and although I never saw a river completely full of salmon, I did see patches of darkness so dense that just like Jensen’s need to look closer at the photo, it did take me a moment to verify the dark patches were all fish and not shadows of the trees. When Jensen discusses ‘that level of fecundity’ I was reminded of my first visit to Alaska because my first impressions of seeing eagles, dall sheep and moose everywhere wowed me. But just as quickly as I observed the abundance of wildlife, it dawned on me under the midnight sun that everywhere in the lower 48 was once also just as full of life. 

The observation I made in Alaska is similar to the one Jensen and I separately but similarly made in Colorado watching open space replaced with urban sprawl. As we discussed during the interview, prairie dogs were once easily spotted from the road everywhere along Colorado’s Front Range. There are still some scattered along the train tracks and anywhere they can find a spot to burrow in the sprawl. One spot where they are somewhat protected is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, just eight miles from downtown Denver. The site opened to the public in 2004 but had previously been used by the Army to manufacture chemical weapons and by Shell Oil Company to produce pesticides. After chemical weapons stopped being produced, the area became a disposal site. Once that work was completed, it was found to be a hazardous waste site. During the cleanup process, bald eagles began to roost in the area and because bald eagles were an endangered species at the time, it became a wildlife refuge – though it took almost twenty years for the area to be deemed safe to open to the public. Along with prairie dogs and eagles, the site today is also inhabited by bison, ferrets and a heck of a lot of deer. 

It feels surreal to walk on a former chemical weapons manufacturing site turned wildlife refuge. It also seems to fit our societal view of wilderness – use a space unsafe for humans to protect animals that don’t otherwise have access to their habitat. The wildlife is considered protected but it is also managed, which means humans are dictating how many of each species there can remain. The bison population is set to a finite amount until more space is procured. A bubonic plague outbreak last year reduced the prairie dog numbers and the response to the outbreak leveled burrows after a flood of pesticides was released back into the very ground that once supported pesticide production. The area around the site is now being developed to build even more townhouses and stripmalls and Jensen’s comment about salmon bashing ‘themselves against the dam trying to get home – and that seems like a wonderful and powerful metaphor for how all of us should be – just implacably trying to get home’ makes me think of my old home that was once abundant with prairie dogs. But I am happy the eagles came home to roost (not figuratively) so the prairie dogs, and precisely 60 bison, still have a small space to live. Perhaps some other endangered species might make a home at the nearby Rocky Flats site that once produced plutonium pits and poisoned local water supplies. It might be the best bet for the animals. 

I feel bad ending things with cynicism because my conversation with Derrick Jensen left me feeling very hopeful and optimistic. But, ‘until this madness stops’ to use his words…

Andrew Murphy of Mill Valley Public Library