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"Waiting for Salmon" – excerpt

Over the decades I’ve lived here and watched these fish spawn, I’ve witnessed three major changes in the woods around me. The populations of some species of birds—Swainson’s Thrush and MacGillivray’s Warbler, for example—have dwindled and the range and intensity of birdsong have declined. The probable cause is the elimination of these species’ homes in the neotropics, where they overwinter. Fewer now survive to return north.
     A second change, more obvious to those for whom news of the loss of birds brings only a philosophical shrug, is that our winters are milder. Thirty years ago, winters here were marked by four or five snowstorms, a couple of which might have made the forty-mile drive to town too risky to chance. I can’t recall the last time we had a snowfall that accumulated, that amounted to more than a snow shower, or the last time the temperature dipped into the teens Fahrenheit. The probable cause—a recurrent and natural event likely accelerated this time by the hand of man—is global warming, a phenomenon now so widely reported and documented it makes America’s official stance of equivocation look deliberately, cabalistically ignorant. How global warming will affect the fate of Chinook salmon, and all that’s tied to them, is one of the many Gordian knots in natural history blithely dismissed by Americans still trying to pull Charles Darwin’s pants down. Meanwhile the problems—the wholly unanticipated secondary effects of mega-engineering projects, for example—continue to arrive like horsemen on the dawn horizon.
     The third change has been confounding—a seeming reversal of the popular assertion, tedious to some, that the natural world is falling apart. Here’s what, confoundingly, happened: after years of decline, the number of salmon spawning on the McKenzie suddenly went up. The year I moved here, 1970, I counted sixteen adult Chinook salmon on the gravel flats in September. During the thirty-two years following, that number fell, slowly but steadily. In 2002 only three turned up. Then, in September 2003, thirteen appeared. That fall, scientists later told me, four times as many spring Chinook arrived on the upper McKenzie as had come—on average—in any of the previous fifteen years. Since the mid-Eighties the total number of returning natives (so called to set them apart from hatchery fish) had hovered at around 1,000. In 2003, 5,784 reached the upper river. A further speculation, at the time, was that these elevated numbers of returning salmon might be just as high in 2004 (they nearly were—4,789 came in) and that they might well be again in 2005.
     Biologists at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and other concerned historians of the natives’ fate, speculated that increased upwelling in the eastern Pacific Ocean (the North American side) caused a sudden improvement in feeding conditions at sea, which accounted for an increase in the rate of survival for three, four, and five-year-old springers. A greater-than-usual number, then, would have survived the familiar gauntlet—hundreds of miles of commercial fishing, toxic spills, dams, gravel-mining operations—to swim up the river and spawn.
     Fisheries’ biologists, staring at these numbers, have at least two important questions still to address. With feeding conditions at sea suddenly improved, would freshwater conditions show a similar improvement? And, how many smolts born of these larger adult populations would return to spawn?
     The sudden recovery of 2003 and 2004 is statistically striking, but it’s finally insignificant as a sign of overall health in the ecosystem of which the fish is a part. Biologists did not see ‘improvement’ in 2003 and 2004. They saw an anomaly, a not-quite-comprehensible ‘perturbation’.

I phoned my younger brother in coastal Maine when I learned of the high count of returning salmon in 2003. He told me it had been another bumper year, there, for lobster; but the explanation for Maine’s recent record harvests, he told me, was nothing good. Biologists, I learned, attribute them to ‘dysfunction’ in the near-shore ecosystem. A partial explanation they offer is that stocks of wild fish that feed regularly on lobster larvae, such as coastal cod and rock bass, have declined sharply. In other words, there are more lobster because the predatory fish population has collapsed.
     This more complex story—in which global warming again is suspected of playing a definite but unspecified role—has a depth that fits it poorly to television news, with its penchant for summary accounts. Such natural events—when they’re reported—are normally rounded up into breezy, upbeat bulletins, suggesting, in this instance, the irrepressible economic strength of the lobster industry. The good times, many people in Maine are encouraged to believe, have returned. Difficult times are too hard to explain.
     Maine’s huge lobster harvests are an unstable process, one without an end point. We can’t ‘fix’ the ‘lobster problem’; it has no solution. And, knowing that its components—warming water, biochemical fluctuations—have some bearing on the biology and ecology of Homo sapiens, it is hard to characterize the accompanying news reports as anything but irresponsible. News reporting is a commercial endeavour, and it has no budget for deliberation. It is economically untenable for mainstream news to be too deeply reflective.
     To get some better sense of what’s behind Maine’s huge lobster harvests you have to search out, to take an example, Ecosystems, a technical journal, specifically the issue that went online on April 27, 2004 and read ‘Accelerating Trophic-level Dysfunction in Kelp Forest Ecosystems of the Western North Atlantic’. This is news of a different sort. It is deeply researched and carefully wrought, it makes references to supporting and dissenting opinion, and it shows some elegance in its logic and conclusions.
     Politicians, the men and women who decide domestic and foreign policy where lobster harvesting is concerned, do not read Ecosystems. And television news is the common ground politicians share with their constituents. Scientists, like the ones writing for Ecosystems, are treated on television (and by many politicians) with a measure of amusement. Offering their vetted reports on dysfunctional ecosystems and global warming, scientists tend to claim, justifiably, an expertise superior to that of politicians and newscasters. The politicians, for their part, bring out their own experts, especially to refute any report that threatens any section of the vaunted economy. These individuals might have no scientific training at all, but they possess credentials (or motives) of some other sort—a talk-show celebrity, a clergyman, say—which serve convincingly to contradict the expertise of the scientist in the eyes of those who have yet to turn the program off.
     This warfare between experts—which began in earnest in America with the simultaneous emergence of computer modeling and a general awareness of the economic threat posed by environmental problems—is as much a menace to human survival now as the natural catastrophes that ignite the arguments. Traditionally, the focus of expertise in the face of catastrophe is solution. It may be, however, that within the grand cycles of the planet Earth, its warming and cooling periods and magnetic-field reversals, within the disjointed sequence of its hyper-millennial events, such as the bolide impact near the Yucat×n Peninsula 65 million years ago which helped wipe out seventy-five percent of Cretaceous life—it may be that, on the rough seas of these long-term events, there are no solutions. A lifeboat, instead, may be required.
     Expertise with no measure of humility is of no use to us. No one knows why there are suddenly more salmon in front of my house, but their coming and going is more than incidental scenery. It’s a sentence in a story about human fate.

During several years of exposure to different societies of traditional people—remnant Ainu on Hokkaido, Iñupiaq Eskimo in Alaska, Pitjantjatjara Aborigines in the Northern Territory—I’ve encountered individual men and women who possessed what seemed to be a staggering expertise in natural history: a knowledge of the ecology of fire and the signs of coming weather; an ability to predict when a particular creature might be found at a particular place; an understanding of the links between plants, insects, humidity and temperature; an ability to decipher the very recent past, revealed, for example, in faint scribes on the surfaces of snow and sand.
     What I learned from this welter of examples were two things. First, to endure as a people you have to pay attention. Second, no individual exclusively possesses this expertise. It’s the community’s collective creation. The long-term stability of the community depends on the regular and uncalculated sharing of empirical information by close observers. The individuals most impressive in their local knowledge to an outsider (like me) are often merely the most adept practitioners of community knowledge. The response among such people to changing or dire conditions is not to call on experts, as that term is commonly used in the cultural West, but to gather the best minds, those that not only observe but listen, that see something else at stake in life besides a professional reputation.

–excerpt from pages 77-81 of Granta 90 Summer 2005