10 October 2009

Where Coyote and Salmon Once Passed

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, nature - along with all things man it supports - lies in ruin. Forests decay, their deaths punctuated by fire. Oceans settle into grey. The sky too. Gone are the unobtrusive pursuits of wild animals, the chitterings of birds, and the occult fluid mastery of fish. The world undone into which the protagonist father has been pitched together with his young son, who has no experience of the prior, is cold, silent, funerary:
The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief.
McCarthy’s hero is engaged in a struggle to survive. Not survival for himself. Nor survival at any cost. There are, as every father worthy of the appellation teaches his son, limits. Living within such limits sometimes means dying. The man assures his son that they are and, come what may, will always be “the good guys”. Unlike “the bad guys” they encounter on the road, they will starve to death rather than kill other people to eat. At night the father would tell his son “Old stories of courage and justice as he remembered them until the boy was asleep in his blankets.”

Through his tellings of these old stories, his commitment to the ethics of masculinity portrayed therein, and his (sometimes faltering) efforts to exemplify them for his son in a hostile world, the man assures the boy not only that they will always be the good guys but also that as such they are “carrying the fire” – the fire previously carried and passed on by his father and his father’s fathers before him. This task and its fulfillment is what links past generations to future through present. This task and its attempted fulfillment is what engages our fathers passed before us in our affairs. They watch us. But they also weigh us “in their ledgerbook”. Thus they neither watch nor, more importantly, watch over us unconditionally:
They are watching for a thing that even death cannot undo and if they do not see it they will turn away from us and they will not come back.
McCarthy’s “bad guys” rape, kill and eat others, including their own children. They embrace a self-defeating wickedness. They reject the fire. They reject the task of carrying the fire forward, enkindling and nurturing it in a new generation. Their fathers have turned away because they have turned away from their fathers, utterly.

The man’s memories of trout are at the core of his lament for living nature, its beauty, and its grace. At various places on his and his son’s journey, he crosses now dispirited rivers “Where once he’d watched trout swaying in the current, tracking their perfect shadows on the stones beneath”; where once he’d
… watched the flash of trout deep in a pool, invisible to see in the teacolored water except as they turned on their sides to feed. Reflecting back the sun deep in the darkness like a flash of knives in a cave.
Something of the significance of trout and of what was – and, in our case, would be - lost in their destruction is conveyed in The Road’s final paragraph:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.


Salmon are cousin to trout. Pacific sockeye salmon are a race particularly adept at solving the watery maze of ocean, rivers, lakes, and streams they must reverse navigate to return to their individual places of origin to spawn and die.

Dozens of indigenous peoples, with their own distinct languages, political systems and laws, prospered on the yearly sockeye runs of the Fraser River and its tributaries long before the arrival of Europeans in the Pacific Northwest. Indeed the existence of many of these communities, particularly those making their homes in British Columbia’s interior, would have been unthinkable absent the migrating salmon. Hence, the significance of salmon to Pacific Northwest natives is sometimes compared to the significance of buffalo to the Plains Indians.

The gradual ascent of salmon up the Fraser River and its tributaries coincided with the gradual retreat of the glaciers several thousand years ago. Coyote (Sk’elep) was their guide. Coyote’s purpose was to bring the salmon and the people together.

Coyote was particularly solicitous of the Secwepemc (shuh-kwehp-im) people’s needs. The ancestral territory of the Secwepemc, who are more commonly known as the Shuswap, covers a large portion of British Columbia’s interior, an approximately 180,000 square km area extending roughly east-west from the Rocky Mountains to beyond the Fraser River and north-south from the upper Fraser River to Arrow Lakes. Coyote cleared man-made as well as natural obstructions from the lower Fraser to allow the salmon to pass through Secwepemc territory on their way to spawn. He shaped special fishing sites to make it easy for the people to fish. One of his most marvelous works, Coyote formed the canyon at Soda Creek, the ancient village site of Xats’ull, the northernmost Secwepemc community.


When British Columbia entered the Canadian Confederation on 20 July 1871, Parliament’s authority to legislate in regard to “Sea Coast and Inland Fisheries” under Section 91(12) of the British North America Act of 1867 was extended to the Pacific salmon fisheries within the former British colony’s sphere. Almost five years later, on 1 July 1876, the federal Fisheries Act was proclaimed in British Columbia. For more than a century and a quarter, the federal government has exercised its powers under the Act in regard to the Pacific salmon fisheries through Fisheries and Oceans Canada (and its predecessor agencies), better known as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or DFO for short.

For most of its history, DFO managed the Pacific salmon fisheries primarily for the benefit of corporate/commercial interests (and not wholly incidentally for government’s own related interests - revenue and profit are ever hungry twins). The first commercial salmon canneries in British Columbia were founded in the 1870s on the lower Fraser River. They quickly muscled indigenous peoples out of their traditional and/or fledgling commercial salmon fisheries, relying on “the law” and DFO’s enforcement to reduce their fishing to mere subsistence or less. When they were even a thought, indigenous peoples and their needs were a distant second thought. As for their prior rights, they subsisted barely and then only episodically on the edge of DFO’s and the federal government’s awareness.

By almost any measure, DFO’s management – including its willingness to shuck its statutory responsibilities of management - of the Pacific Salmon and, in particular, its management of the Fraser River sockeye, is a disgrace.

Among an increasing number of disastrous years for the Fraser River sockeye, 2009 stands out. On 13 August 2009, the Globe and Mail reported that despite DFO’s confident earlier prediction of a return of 10.6 to 13 million sockeye to the Fraser, it had revised its estimate dramatically downward to 1.7 million. Each year’s sockeye return concludes a four year cycle. DFO’s prediction was based on the facts that nearly nine million sockeye had spawned in the Fraser system in 2005 and, as a result, that a high number of smolts had migrated from lakes and streams downriver to the sea in 2007. These facts gave DFO reason to believe that 2009 would be yet better than 2005. It stood by its original prediction until summer test fishing results began to unfold a different story.

Asked to explain the disappearance of nine or more million sockeye, Gail Shea, the Minister in charge of DFO, and her underlings retreated to the tried and true, namely, overgeneralizing the problem (“coastwide decline across all Pacific salmon species”), invoking global forces beyond anyone’s control (“climate change”), and pleading scientific uncertainty in regard to causes on the one hand, while assuring the government’s reliance on “the best available science” on the other.

Remaining true to its late 19th century priorities, DFO’s public statements, from administratrix Shea on down, were often aimed less at defending DFO than at defending the corporate/ commercial fish farms that dot British Columbia’s coast. Thanks to the research of a small group of dedicated and thick skinned scientists, including Alexandra Morton, willing to endure the derision of the government-industry tag team and their supporting cast of experts, the causal link between the underwater plagues of sea lice generated by these open-net fish “feedlots” and the demise of juvenile sockeye salmon is now incontrovertible. The only uncertainty remaining is numbers.

Despite this, as soon as questions about the collapse of the 2009 Fraser River sockeye run began to arise, DFO’s Pacific Regional Director General wrote a brief, five-sentence letter to the Globe and Mail assuring the public, in his opening sentence, that “Sea lice from fish farms are not the explanation for this year’s extremely poor marine survival of Fraser River sockeye.” (Despite his use of the definite article “the”, what he really wanted his readers to take away from his letter was that sea lice from fish farms are not a significant part of the explanation, for no serious critic had claimed that sea lice from fish farms were the only explanation.) In short order, the false premise and faulty reasoning on which he based his assurance were exposed for what they were.

On further examination, it came to light that some Fraser River sockeye, specifically those originating from the tributary Harrison River system, not far upriver from the Fraser’s mouth, were returning at 2 times the DFO forecast. Thus, the missing fish were mid and upper Fraser River sockeye. The telling difference between the Harrison and the mid and upper Fraser sockeye is that while the former migrate south through the fish farm-free Strait of Juan de Fuca when they leave the river, the latter migrate north, forced to run the long gauntlet of fish farms between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia in their effort to make their way to the open sea.

Following upon the recent years of dismal returns, the collapse of the 2009 run hit the Secwepemc people particularly hard. The majority of the 9 or so million sockeye gone missing would have passed through Secwepemc territory on their way to their spawning grounds. Communities that once devoted their late summer months to dipnetting and processing salmon in the thousands to share within and trade without counted their catches in the dozens. Those who still choose to fish, fish decreasingly for the food, much less the wealth, for which their ancestors fished, but increasingly for its symbolic value. Stripped down to its essentials by forces largely outside the Secwepemc people’s control, the act of fishing is a crucial cultural fibril connecting them to their ancestors.

Speak with Secwepemc people about the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye and one soon realizes that they have long seen it coming. They tend to see the causes in historical and cumulative terms. They do not overlook and thus excuse local causes to focus exclusively on distant (e.g. sea lice) or global/speculative ones (e.g. climate change). The Fraser’s life nourishing waters have for many years been heavily burdened by upriver sewage, agricultural runoff, and pulp mill effluent. Decades of unsustainable forest harvesting practices and, more recently, massive deforestation due to the ravages of the mountain pine beetle are also taking their toll on the river and its salmon. Adding insult to injury, and with DFO when pressed standing aside, the Provincial government recently permitted Taseko's Gibraltar Mine to pipe its tailings pond water many kilometers to the Fraser, discharging it not far upriver from the ancient village fishing site of the Xats’ull. To a people whose ethic does not permit them to clean their fish in the River’s waters, despite the inconvenience, or even to cast a rock into it, the authorized addition of the copper mine’s contaminants to the river’s already heavily burdened waters is an insult deeply felt.

When Coyote left the earth, he left a world and a people well suited to one another. He also left lessons to be retold through the generations on how to live and how not to live. As trickster, his conduct was ever purposeful but never predictable. He and his works, the Secwepemc understand well, elude the grasp of reason (including what many call science), taking cover in mystery. Things in their world speak to them specially - things sui generis, things personal, things chosen for their benefit that need not have been. The world, their world, is a gift, a gift given to them. But they too are part of their world, and their identity as Secwepemc inseparable from it. Thus, who they are is also a gift given to them together with their world. Threats to their world, including especially threats to their salmon, are threats to the people. Manifestly, their world is threatened on all sides.


Roughly midway through The Road, McCarthy portrays the father awakening from a dream - in which he has been visited in his sleep within his dream by speechless, skulking “creatures of a kind he’d never seen before” - to the realization that to his son he is himself an alien:
He turned and looked at the boy. Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.
To some extent, all fathers are aliens to their sons. The world in which a son’s father is formed experientially and otherwise is of the past - a past not directly accessible to the son. Unavoidably, something of the father’s world no longer exists. There is often, then, something unverifiable and therefore suspect about a father’s tales. Also unavoidably, in retelling his world lost, he cannot reconstruct it for his son’s pleasure without an admixture of the loss. However, the feeling of loss is ever more the father’s than the son’s. A son looks to his father for inspiration and analogies to guide him in a future to be partly determined by his choices, not for invariable laws governing only what lies beneath choice. Although less evident in traditional societies not habituated to – diverting but mostly superficial - change for the sake of change, the aforesaid is universally true nonetheless.

McCarthy’s protagonist father faces a further obstacle in conveying to his son his world past and his connections to his father and his father’s fathers. Language (anthropic logos) is losing not just its grip on reality but the very reality without which it has no grip, no meaning, and without which it is not. In its ending as in its beginning was the world:
The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.
It is no accident that McCarthy, who is a master of descriptive detail, has the man and the boy communicate in the most basic of words and actions. Their shared world cannot sustain more.


For more than 150 years, Secwepemc men (and women) have struggled to be fathers (and mothers) and thus to carry their people’s fire forward in a “world shrinking down” on account of smallpox, measles, and other epidemics, usurpation, dispossession, despoilment of nature – in short, the catalogue of evils colonialism has visited upon them.

From the Secwepemc people’s perspective, the decline of the Fraser River sockeye has shorn the “sacred idiom”, whether Secwepemctsín or English, of core referents and reality. With the fish go first the people’s activities and rituals associated therewith (dipnetting, packing, cleaning, drying, smoking, storing, sharing, trading, eating, celebrating, etc.) and then their names “slowly following.”

The Secwepemc are not unaware of what is at stake. Like McCarthy’s protagonist father, they know that “[f]inally,” after the names of fish, “[t]hings to eat,” and the names of the acts and rituals associated therewith, go “the names of things one believed to be true,” including the names for beauty and goodness. Their waters are polluted, their once green forests are shrouded in red, the colour of death, and their salmon are disappearing. The Secwepemc find it increasingly difficult to think of their world in terms of beauty and goodness or even of beauty and goodness at all.

Despite the heartbreaking circumstances, there are Secwepemc men who continue to struggle as Secwepemc fathers to carry the fire forward in an increasingly hostile world. Their fathers watch. They keep watching because they still see in their sons and their sons’ sons “a thing that even death cannot undo.”


Modern fashion counsels meeting those who speak so of their fathers with pity, ridicule or outright derision. So powerful is the fashion that many have internalized the stance in their own inner dialogue. Hence, McCarthy's man, in a despondent mood, poses to himself and provides an answer to the question:
Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.
Not long after, in a rare respite from the challenges of the road, the man - sensing something in his son, his deepening love for his son, and their struggle beyond death's reach - affirms the ongoing but conditional engagement of his fathers in their lives.

Those of us not bullied by prevailing fashion - that is, those who have not bought the supreme self-aggrandizing invention that "[t]here is no book" or standards against which we are measured and that our "fathers are dead in the ground," period - must nonetheless ask ourselves the question: do our fathers still watch?


A film adaptation of The Road is set for wide release in late November. Directed by John Hillcoat, the movie stars Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Charlize Theron.