“Freeman House is a former commercial salmon fisher who has been involved with a community-based watershed restoration effort in northern California for more than 25 years. He is a co-founder of the Mattole Salmon Group and the Mattole Restoration Council. His book, Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species received the best nonfiction award from the San Francisco Bay Area Book Reviewers Association and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award for quality of prose. He lives with his family in northern California.”
That’s the biographical note for Freeman House on the Lannan Foundation website. We would add that earlier in his life, Freeman edited Innerspace, a mid-1960s independent press magazine for the nascent psychedelic community; presided over the marriage of Abbie and Anita Hoffman at Central Park on June 10, 1967; and was a member of both New York City’s Group Image and the San Francisco Diggers.
This is the third lecture in this series. This series ran previously on this site in 2010-11, and is being rerun now because it’s the right thing to do.
This piece was first published in Orion magazine, May-June 2003. It received the John Burroughs Award for best natural history essay of 2003.
AFTERLIFE: On the great pulse of nutrients that feeds all of Creation
by Freeman House
with photography by Scott Chambers, 1948-2008
The world is our consciousness. It surrounds us.
As an industrial fisherman I’ve taken hundreds, perhaps thousands of salmon lives. I’ve also eaten them—roasted over an open fire, poached with dill sauce, smoked on alder wood, and baked with sweet pepper and tomato. I’ve pursued salmon in the wild for livelihood and food, worked with my watershed neighbors to insure their continued presence in my home river, and written books and essays about them. I am in part a man made of salmon, so it doesn’t seem strange to me now to be pondering their lives after death.
For several months, Scott Chambers’ photographs of salmon, dead after spawning on the Starrigavin River near Sitka, Alaska, have been spread out on my worktable, pinned over whatever blank spaces remain on the walls of my office, and perched on piles of books waiting to be shelved. Their undeniable beauty is not enough to explain their grip on my mind. I suppose that if I lived with any set of photos for long enough they would begin to enter my dreams, evoking ever more personal associations. These “descriptions of light,” to use the root meaning of the word photography, are illuminating my imagination. If light is information without a message, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, I feel compelled to impose messages on these stark images.
The fish in the pictures are all quite dead; some of them, in fact, are in advanced states of decay. One carcass, hung on a log that is temporarily trapped in a cascade, is so deeply and evenly covered with fungal growth it appears to be coated with cottage cheese. Another smaller one, perhaps a year-old male, has released the gasses of decay that might keep it buoyant, and sunk.
It lies on the bottom of a shallow reach; alder leaves floating on the surface nearly obscure the corpse; the shadow of streamside willow trees dapples both floating leaves and sunken fish. The photo seems to suggest a year-long process, as if the body has decayed and the nutrients borne from the sea have already nourished the roots of the riparian trees, which, in turn, added their leaves to the stream’s nutrient fund.
Here’s another: a clutch of carcasses is hung on brushy branches like laundry scattered to dry. They seem to lunge toward the viewer. The eye of one is gone from its socket, its gills shredded, likely the work of a passing bird. The eye of another is clouded and glows like a pearl. With their hook bills and gaping mouths, they might be monsters from the deep—guards at the boundary separating life and death.
Photography is by nature a set of instructions about where to direct our attention. The primary message of any photographer is “I have selected this image rather than another.” How many hundreds of pictures have we seen of salmon leaping up a cataract? How many of pairs of fish on a redd or of salmon packed as thickly in a stream as sardines in a can? How few of the grotesque stages of death, the rot and decay that attend the species’ final transition?
There is a set of relationships at work here infinitely more complex than the reproduction and survival of a single species. Ecologically, the more important event (that is, essential to the health of the larger system) is the contribution of the salmons’ carcasses to the streams and to the terrestrial systems surrounding. Ecologically, it is insignificant that the individual creature has died. From the point of view of the larger system, the nutrients released through decomposition of the carcass are what’s notable.
Besides being anadromous—reproducing in fresh water, but spending most of their lives in the nutrient-rich ocean—Pacific salmon have evolved to a condition called semelparity, which means that every salmon dies after reproducing once. In the past, before salmon stocks on the North Pacific Rim began to disappear one by one, there were seasons when you could smell a salmon river before you could see it, so thickly were spent spawners piled on the banks. Pragmatic humans tend to find this condition counter-intuitive. It seems as if nature has made a mistake. All those thousands of miles of ocean journey to gain the size and flavor that makes salmon such a grand food—and then only one chance to reproduce?
The life cycle of the salmon has been anthropomorphized and romanticized beyond the bounds of decency. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Humans, especially those who live around the North Pacific or its tributaries, associate the qualities of courage, strength, passion, and devotion to salmon’s upstream migration. Sexual references abound. Such romances might be mitigated, or at least balanced, by watching salmon die. The gradual weakening of spawned-out salmon may take days or weeks. The fish lacks purpose and strength; it drifts listlessly, with an occasional weak effort to remain close to the nest, assumedly to protect the newly fertilized eggs from predators. It becomes more and more difficult to stay upright. Fish float on their sides and eventually on their backs. Bears or raccoons or otters wade in and put a compassionate end to the slow decline and the river becomes an assisted death facility.
But once the end has come, what a spectacle unfolds! Those live fish taken by bears, or otters, or raccoons, wasteful eaters all, will be tossed ashore or left to drift once a few prime bites are taken. Now it seems as if some whistle has been blown calling all creatures to the work of carrying the salmon-borne ocean nutrients into the terrestrial home. Microorganisms of all kinds—bacteria, algae, and fungi—go to work immediately to reduce the flesh to components that can nourish the larger system. The bird that took the eyes and gills, perhaps a bald eagle, will fly off and leave its salmon-rich droppings everywhere. A fish-eating bear will shit in the woods, sometimes up to eight miles from the stream. Smaller mammals and birds will scavenge the remains left by the larger predators and carry them throughout the streamside vegetation, the shade of which is so critical to cooling the running waters. In a remarkably short time, the stinking carcasses are gone but for a few skeletal remains, the bones of which will decompose more quickly than the denser bones of mammals.
Mayflies and caddis flies lay their eggs in salmon carcasses. When the young salmon emerge from the eggs fertilized before the mass die-off, they feed on the flies and other invertebrates that are nourished by the pulse of nutrient left by their forebears. One study that compares the growth of salmon fry in a stream blessed with abundant salmon runs with the same growth in a less abundant stream shows the young fish growing to twice the size in the stream with more spawners. That extra size will give the little fish a big survival advantage as they cross the continental shelf on their way to adulthood in deeper waters. Abundance creates abundance.
Some species have found their relationship to salmon so important that the timing of their life strategies has adjusted itself to the timing of spawning runs. Bears in salmon country glut on salmon to put on the fat they need for hibernation. Mink give birth prior to salmon runs; lactating mothers find a wealth of rich protein at the edges of their neighborhood streams that gives them the extra nutrition they need to nourish their young. “Life lives on lives,” says Joseph Campbell.
Mandan people, according to Howard Harrod writing in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians, dressed their dead in the finest clothes, oiled the body, painted the face red, and wrapped the corpse in buffalo hide. Along with a woman’s favorite gardening stick, or a man’s favorite weapon, the body would be placed on a four-legged scaffold, high enough off the ground for the family to gather beneath it to mourn in the days following death. Birds must have participated, too: carrion eaters performing their role in keeping the world clean. After the mourners had returned to their diminished lives, after the scaffolding had rotted, after the flesh had fallen away, the bones were gathered and buried in the village refuse heap, except for the skull. The skull was placed with others that formed a circle around the village, facing in toward it. If you wanted to commune with your grandmother, her skull was there to focus your attention.
Modern Parsi people, descendants of ancient Zoroastrians driven from Persia, practice their death rites even today. In the most crowded cities in India, one can find buildings called towers of silence. Parsis, worshipers of the sun in the form of Ahura-Mazda, place the bodies on iron platforms on the tops of the towers. Prayers and torches invite the assistance of vultures, whom the Parsis call “rays of the sun.”
In contrast, industrial society has created an artificial boundary between human lives and the lives of other animals, between our bodies and nature. It is a dangerous distinction because it creates the illusion that we are separate from the larger processes of life. It is also a willful distinction, with a hidden agenda. If we can separate ourselves out from the biological world, recreate it for our own purposes, might we not finally conquer or at least delay death? Is there any substantive difference between the ancient Egyptian practice of mummifying the rich and powerful and the cryogenic contracts occasionally arranged by the same class in our own time? With the rush toward cloning humans?
We’re proud of our self-consciousness, supposedly lodged in that extra-large cranium that differentiates us from other animals. In our minds, we can organize data, rationalize, compartmentalize, project a past and future. If necessary to our moment-to-moment comfort, we can relegate whole areas of being into a dark room in our minds called denial and close the door. The doorlatch is faulty. It swings open any time we drop our defenses. Most of us, for most of our waking time, try to keep the door closed on our own inevitable death. But knowledge of mortality is the price we pay for self-consciousness, and it won’t stay in the closet.
My first experience of death was when my father died, some 30 years ago. I had no money and hitchhiked 200 miles south to his memorial in the Bay Area of California. He lay in an open casket lined with copper if I remember correctly. Pumped with formaldehyde and rouged, he looked young (he was only 59), looked like he had just come in from a walk in a brisk wind, looked like he might rise up and go out again. I didn’t feel much. At the burial I expected to toss some of the excavated dirt on to the coffin, being the first-born. While waiting for someone to put a shovel in my hand, I heard a diesel engine fire up close behind me. Panicked, I turned to face the modern world bearing down on me in the form of a backhoe. It had not occurred to me that grave digging had long since become mechanized. Without thinking, I grabbed a shovel from a rack on the side of the machine, and threw dirt on the closed coffin. The backhoe operator put the machine in neutral so as not to run me down. Hearing the change of the engine’s sound, I dropped the shovel and dug into the pile of loose soil with my hands. Only after I had buried my hands did I return to some socially aware sense of myself. I stood up, stayed for a moment looking down, and then joined the other mourners moving toward the parking lot.
My mother died 16 years later in southern California. A thoughtful and thorough woman, she had before her death engaged the Neptune Society to perform a simple cremation. The ashes were taken north to a place near my home. In the sweeping bight south of Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in California, there is a rock just at the tidal zone that rises up 50 or 60 feet. Beyond the large rock is a series of smaller ones trailing seaward, rocks that are submerged at very high tides. My mother’s children and grandchildren gathered and waited for a low tide. We rock-hopped the canister out to the furthest rock, bucking a cold, stiff breeze coming off the ocean. There wasn’t room on the rocks to stand abreast; we straggled out in single file. We must have looked at a distance like particularly clumsy cormorants as we hunched into the wind. We edged past each other carefully, one at a time, to throw a pinch of gritty ash and bone into the surf that broke on the rocks at our feet. The wind carried the ashes back into each of our faces. We took photographs.
My brother and sister and I felt close, maybe closer than we had ever felt, as we walked the quarter-mile back to the road. We shared a new sense of our own mortality, the most common of terrors. Now, when I drive along the ocean beach toward home, my connection to my mother seems as large as the sea stretching to the horizon. If I hadn’t the stomach to witness her body being torn by birds as on a platform, I had at least played part in returning her to her corporeal origins.
The writer and anthropologist Richard Nelson is quoted as saying, “After I die I want to be eaten as soon as possible. I want to get back into circulation.” One might take Nelson’s quip for a salmon sentiment. It’s become almost fashionable for wilderness advocates to romanticize the prospect of being eaten by a grizzly or a cougar. But how many of us can really think with equanimity, or even visualize with any amount of vividness, our sweet flesh slowly nibbled by worms? How might we attempt to gain some ease with the knowledge that we are part of the food chain? One way or another, humans have been chewing on this problem for most of time.
The deaths of my parents and the losses of friends that followed have created a yeast culture that has grown over the years hidden behind that door of denial in my mind. Living with Scott Chambers’ pictures for a while has let some air into that room, and the yeast has grown into a qualified comfort with the fact that my precious physical individuality is but a boat made of bread drifting on a hungry sea. There is a difficult but compelling poetic logic in the idea of my body disappearing into the soil, or rather, transubstantiating into nutrients for the health of the larger body. Consider this passage from the Upanishads:
From Brahman came space; from space, air;
From air, fire; from fire, water; from water,
Earth; from earth, plants; from plants, food;
and from food
The human body, head, arms, legs, and heart.
From food are made all bodies, which become
Food again for others after their death.
Considered alongside Chambers’ pictures, this ancient directive is instructing us to think about death in a new way.
When I leave my office and the photos behind and step outdoors, I’m walking over the bones of my ancestors—of all species—wherever I go, each step a tick on the clock of my own mortality. My own bones are destined to become part of that rich assemblage, a progression that has assumed a sort of symphonic grandeur in my mind. Where can we have come from but the Earth? What has kept me alive but the Earth and its creatures? Is there anything I have ever eaten that has not brought death to some other being? When I am in a state approaching sanity I am a functional part of that Creation. (I can’t claim these bouts of sanity are with me often, but I’m pretty sure the pursuit of immortality is crazy.) Living with Chambers’ photographs has helped me to know this again, and for that I am grateful.
The Earth will claim me as its own. Which I am. If I can come to understand this fully, I will know most of what I’m able to know about death.