Ocean, Sun & Idaho's Salmonby David James Duncan
Patagonia, Fall 1999
Imagine a living being the size of the entire Pacific Ocean. Imbue this being with the same molten to glacial temperature ranges as the Pacific, the same 36,000-foot deeps, the same immeasurable power, incalculable mystery, and endless ability to produce life, terror and beauty. Imagine this being your mother -- because in a very real sense, she is. Imagine the Sun is your father -- because in equally real ways, he is too. Imagine your distant but inarguably brilliant Papa and 70-million-square-mile Mama are not just in love, but making love: Imagine them in coitus for eternity -- because they are. Imagine your ocean mother's wombs are countless, that her lovemaking brings about countless gestations and births, and that an infinity of siblings (blue whales, great white sharks, endless living castles of coral, vast phalanxes of fishes, innumerable flocks of birds, gigantic typhoons, weather patterns the size of continents) is the result -- because they are.
Now turn your imagination inland: every raindrop and snowflake that falls upon the Rockies, Sierra, Cascades, Bitteroots, Blues, is a child of Ocean and Sun. And when these tiny offspring congeal, obey gravity and start back down the slopes toward the sea, the result is every life-giving trickle, creek and river in the land. These rivers, as Aldo Leopold pointed out, are "round": They run past our feet and out to sea, then rise up in great tapestries of gravity-defying vapor, blow and flow back over us in oceans of cloud, fall again upon mountain slopes as rain and snow, congeal, obey gravity, start seaward again and so form the perpetual prayer wheels we call "watersheds."
It is hare to imagine anything as mighty as the Columbia or Snake River prayer wheels in trouble because of the antics of anything as insignificant as a human being. Yet they are. It is even harder to imagine that anything as fecund and mighty as the lovemaking of Ocean and Sun would possess creative limitations. Yet it does. For all the diversity of life that they have given us, Sun and Ocean have managed to bequeath us just one -- count them: one -- species of creature capable of journeying back and forth between the snowy peaks and ocean swells. That species is the anadromous fish, the most celebrated of which, for a thousand reasons, is the salmon. And we are in the process -- in fact, near the bitter end of the process -- of robbing America's mountains of this magnificent species for all time.
Idaho is a mountain state blessed with thousands of miles of perfect salmon-rearing streams. But not one adult fish can reach these birth streams without running a gauntlet of four Columbia and four Lower Snake River dams. The Columbia dams were constructed for a variety of purposes, some of them noble, some disastrous. Those four dams are a complex story, and are not my concern here. The four dams on the Snake, though, are not complex. They were built in the 60s and 70s during the last hurrah of an era that erected dams, not when needed, but whenever possible. And if they continue to exist, Idaho's salmon will not.
The Snake River dams are being vociferously defended by Idaho's Republican politicians on purely economic grounds (a mammon-worshipping false standard if ever there was one). But even their economic arguments are specious. The four dams on the Snake do generate hydropower -- but in a time of enormous power surplus. They do provide water to 13 irrigators -- but have put an end to thousands of sustainable river-, tourism- and fishing-related jobs in the process. They do facilitate a Lewiston wheat-barging operation -- but these barges run directly parallel to both an underused railway and a highway system that could carry the same wheat for an increased cost of pennies.
As recently as the 1980s, salmon and steelhead were still plentiful enough to support Columbia River Basin sport fisheries which generated billions of dollars annually -- for boat and outboard motor manufacturers, restaurants, hotels, stores, gas stations, guides, sporting goods manufacturers and so on. Once these economies were wiped out by the dams, a shriveled sort of economic logic began to defend the dam turbines as they spun like slot machines -- a miserable form of prayer wheel -- spitting out diminishing dollars in exchange for the very existence of the last anadromous fish. Without these dams, the true perpetual prayer wheel and the economic boons brought by the salmon and steelhead would return to us from the Land of the Industrial Dead.
Extinction, in any case, is no mere economic matter: it is a biological and spiritual matter, a biological and spiritual disaster. If the life and beauty place in our rivers by Ocean and Sun are not holy, what is? If the thousand-mile migration and dying sacrifice of salmon are not exemplary, what is? In states that call themselves "united," we are destroying the sole species that unites our beautiful inland mountains with the sea. Salmon remain the living needle and their migration the thread that sews the parts of this region into a whole. To restore to these blessed creatures their path to the birth streams of Idaho, to keep full and fruitful the waters of our seas, we have four dams to unbuild.
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