Taking a break from biofuels today to bring you something that speaks to my reasons for promoting and developing wider use and acceptance of biofuels. The following talk from David James Duncan was given April 11 of this year in Missoula MT.
Duncan, author of The River Why among other books and essays, uses stories of the Wild to teach us about ourselves. Please take a few moments of slow quiet time to read the following. Hint: It’s not about the fish.
I have a friend, a ﬁne old poet named Tom Crawford, who has reminded me of wild Columbia and Snake River salmon these past two months, because now Tom too has been lying close to extinction’s door. Endangered in several ways, he drifts in and out, still here in the way a few wild salmon and steelhead are still here. And that tenuousness, Tom’s and salmon’s, make both even more precious to me. Here’s part of a poem Tom was working on before things got tough:
Boys know what the tribes know: the ﬁshing hole is sacred. A young woman, seated in front of a thick glass window inside a dam on the Columbia, counts salmon. Her holy grail: open the dying horse’s mouth; count its last few teeth; keep trying to sell the horse anyway. When my novelist friend, facing the PBS camera, tells us that when we destroy nature’s fabric everything comes unraveled, I feel the old dip net inside me come alive, scoop down. But you can’t take that into the lab. Our tool box is so small, yet we keep reaching into it. One man slits the belly of a female while another pours her thousand eggs into a plastic sack. A third man, clutching a male, milks in its sperm. All to fetch a few sockeye the 900 miles home to Idaho’s alpine Redﬁsh Lake. Our rivers are paved with the dams of our good intentions.
The last time I spoke with my endangered friend he had just had a dream. In the kind of weak, extra-endearing voice that some wise old men have, he said it turns out that Mother Teresa is still alive, and more powerful than ever in spirit. But her body is like an icon in appearance, about the size of a three-year old child, with a range of movement little more limber than a wooden icon’s. So at age 79 Tom got a new job. At Mother Teresa’s request, he picks her up in his arms and carries her as she directs him to places where crowds have gathered. When he sets her down Mother T then speaks to the people, blowing them away with a love and wisdom that now seem boundless. After which Tom picks her up again and carries her away, as directed, to the next place and crowd. When my friend signed off I sat quiet for a long time, feeling the old dip net inside me come alive, scoop down, and marvel at how beautiful some ragged old hearts manage to become. I share this story because, when it comes to the question of how to heal the 260,000 square miles of the Columbia/Snake watershed in a time of climate change, I believe that ragged, beautiful old hearts have everything to do with our purposes.
You’ll notice I call the great river the Columbia/Snake. I’d like to call it by its tribal name but I can’t say it right and, a detail I love: the people who do say the word right refuse to spell it, knowing white folks will just mispronounce it. I call it the Columbia/Snake because the Snake is no more a tributary of the Columbia than is the Columbia a trib of the Snake. The river entire is shaped like a wishbone, the upper Columbia one branch, the Snake the other. Measured from the two rivers’ conﬂuence, the 1100 mile Snake is longer than the Columbia by 270 miles. More central to a lot of us, the Snake’s headwaters comprise a huge network of climate-change resistant, high elevation, pristine-watered rivers and streams that until recently burgeoned with salmon and steelhead. With four lower Snake River dams gone, 5,500 miles of near-perfect habitat would be accessible again, offering us the largest salmon recovery in history. Is there another river on earth more worth naming? Not to me.
Why do I say we need beautiful old hearts to pursue spiritual, social and ecological transformation in a climate-change-threatened river system? Because four hundred dams and thousands of miles of slackwater now heat the system’s ﬂows so horribly that, in the summer of 2015, most the year’s adult salmon and steelhead cooked in the lower river before they even reached the John Day, 200 miles from the Paciﬁc. Why did this happen? Because the bureaucrats and politicos in charge of those salmon couldn’t see mass slaughter coming, because, as the saying goes, No News is Fox News. The salmon bureaucracy denies climate change, ignored the hottest decade in history, ran the grid for maximum hydro, handed America the largest man-made salmon slaughter in its history, walked away scot-free, and they still have the gall to call their manipulations of dams, grid, river temp and ﬂow not just stewardship, but “salmon recovery efforts.” A recovery effort that cooks to death, to name just one casualty, half a million perfectly healthy sockeye trying to swim home to the Okanogan, falls outside any deﬁnition of recovery I’m aware of. So: a central difﬁculty in genuine river recovery: how to disenfranchise salmon slaughtering bureaucrats and empower our watershed’s beautiful old hearts instead? I have friends in salmony places working hard on that task, but it’s an intricate, wonky and lawyerly kind of work.
For the purposes of this gathering, I suggest that recovery begins by admitting that any treaty between the U.S. and Canada that fails to treat the ﬁrst nations and tribes as the nationstates’ equals is not a treaty, but a travesty. Every Indian struggling to preserve their particular place, in my book, is an old-souled cultural treasure. How many times, tracking Standing Rock last year, did we hear beautiful old Indian hearts, often beating in the very young, sounding like walking talking archives of what’s needed to resurrect not just the Columbia/Snake, but to tend whatever’s left of our planet after the forces set in motion by fossil fuel have had their horriﬁc way? For revering humanity’s most lasting and compassionate truths and insisting that water, earth, air and all living things are sacrosanct, Indians are punished. What an irony, an event like this, where the people who have not lost their way must ask to be included in guiding a watershed under the thrall of a government that has completely lost its way. To sit here placidly expecting good to come of the visions of such cave trolls as Scott Pruitt is suicidally out of touch.
So. How to enfranchise beautiful old hearts? I’d like to offer two pearls of wisdom on that. The ﬁrst is from poet Tom’s dreamtime companion, Mother Teresa. In this world, not the next, Mother T said: When I ﬁnally see Jesus, I’ll tell him I loved Him in the dark. I repeat her words today in empathy for and abject apology to all Indians who continue to love and tend their traditions and places in the face of a darkness they did not create.
My second pearl in regard to how to disempower heartless bureaucracies and empower beautiful old hearts, if the good Bishop Skylstad will pardon my white cracker attempt at Latin, is from St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
Amor ipse intellectus est. “Love itself is knowledge.” Love is vital knowledge in guiding the life of a great watershed, for starters, because it bears no resemblance to the hydropower stewardship whose north star is money at the ignored expense of life. Love is also vital because, once we embrace it as a valid way of knowing, our efforts to effect spiritual, social and ecological change are energized and uniﬁed by a self-giving, noncoercive fuel.
Hydropower played a key role in our history when aluminum aircraft were needed to win World War Two. That the abduction of river current for that purpose also caused ongoing devastation to the tribes is too seldom even a footnote to that story. And when love is not honored as a form of knowledge, what forces those in charge of the great river’s current to end the devastation so long as devastation if proﬁtable? The same hydro grid that built the aircraft used cut-rate wartime electricity rates for decades after the war to manufacture billions of aluminum beer cans. As salmon went missing the repurposed current also poured billions into the coffers of the most cynical power with which I’ve ever done battle: Bonneville Power Administration. The form of government BPA brought to our river has a world famous name: apartheid. Why can’t a Columbia Treaty acknowledge that a form of power condemned globally and eradicated in South Africa has no place on the Columbia/Snake?
My wise friend Wendell Berry says that there are two kinds of places on earth: sacred places, and desecrated places. The spirituality of native people in the Paciﬁc Northwest is rooted in the Earth and its sacred places, and wild salmon remain the essence of that connection. Brownlee, Oxbow, Hells Canyon and Grand Coulee dams unleashed total desecration on the tribes by extirpating that connection. Native people asking to have salmon returned to places like the upper Columbia and Nevada are accused of being impractical. How practical was it to bar the tribes from speaking against salmon’s extirpation? If we are to enfranchise the ragged, beautiful, wise old hearts in our watershed we must repudiate religious and cultural chauvinism and recognize that God so loved the world that He gave it both a beloved Son and the beloved ocean-goers and mountain climbers known as wild salmon. Immigrants whose forebears worshipped the Gospels for two thousand years and native people who’ve worshipped salmon for eleven thousand years have each been given a rite through which to enact gratitude to the Creator. Migration of salmon from headwater to sea to headwaters forms a prayer wheel as central to the tribes as the Host is to the Christian Mass. The streams and landscapes sanctiﬁed by salmon runs are the tribe’s holy lands. To ask Indians to “be realistic” and give up on those lands or that sanctiﬁcation is like asking a Pope Francis or Mother Teresa to get real and knock off all this hocus pocus about the Body and Blood of Christ. The more that statement horriﬁes the better you begin to understand: Love itself is knowledge, and John of the Cross sounds more like a Nez Perce elder than a Vatican theologian when he reinforces that truth in six words: “We live in what we love.” Native people inhabiting their ancient watersheds are doing that as surely as Catholics praying in cathedrals are doing it. The refusal to give up on extirpated salmon is biological and spiritual necessity.
A wake up call to rate-payers and tax-payers: Bonneville Power ﬂacks use our money to “control the salmon narrative” in the media, control the region’s salmon science, and control the release of life-giving river current, forcing all of us to betray the tribes and salmon whether we like it or not. $20,000 of our tax dollars subsidize every single barge in or out of the perennially bankrupt so-called “seaport” of Lewiston as the four dams sustaining that port convert the most courageous salmon migration on Earth into an aquatic oven every endangered salmon must navigate twice. As salmon die in those ovens in droves, the last Southern Puget Sound orcas speed toward extinction, dying of starvation for lack of those same salmon. Electricity users think hydro means clean green power. Here is the real bang we’re getting for our BPA bucks. The greatest inland ﬁshery on the planet: wasted. The Eucharist of the tribes for eleven millennia: gone. The Northwest’s supreme embodiment of a pre-Christian self-sacriﬁce reminiscent of the Mass, the Loaves & Fishes miracle, the vocation of the “ﬁshers of men,” the post-Resurrection “miraculous draught of ﬁshes,” the Genesis blessing of “great whales” and “every creature the waters brought forth abundantly”: erased. 5,500 miles of the world’s last best spawning streams given a hysterectomy, under the Endangered Species Act, via bogus science spearheaded by the lords of the dams. Giving control of salmon to BPA and the Army Corps was like giving control of the nation’s drug rehab programs to meth cooks.
Some good news is brewing that I’m not at liberty to speak of, yet. To drop a hint though: replacement of the LSR dams’ worn-out turbines, over the next ten years, would cost at least $1.5 billion, far more than removal of the dams, and dam operations, sediment removal, lock repairs, and so on add more expense. It would be greatly to BPA’s ﬁnancial beneﬁt, and to the beneﬁt of the families and businesses of the Northwest, to remove the LSR dams now.
I’ll end with this: if Cormac McCarthy lived in Extirpation Country on the upper Snake or upper Columbia, the last paragraph of The Road might read like this:
Once there were wild salmon in these mountains. You could see them standing in the clear currents, the edges of their ﬁns trembling in the ﬂow. They were wounded silver; massive; muscular; torsional. They smelled of ocean in your hand. That uncontainable wildness. In every stream. On their sides gleamed maps of the seas in their becoming. On their backs, mazes of the ways by which they’d come. Maps and mazes of things which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In their high mountain birth houses all things hummed of mystery and all things were older than man.
When I was four years old I stood for a day at Celilo Falls. It wrecks me still. When I was ﬁve I met my ﬁrst big wild coho in a ruined urban stream. He assailed me. When I was eight I hooked my ﬁrst steelhead in a little tributary of the Clackamas. She exploded me. It hurts like hell to remember how much beauty and wild wealth and joy has been lost. But when it’s the loving heart that hurts, I say, Let it. Mountains, broken and broken and broken again, become the pebbles of our beloved salmon’s birth houses. May our hearts be like the mountains.
Thank you for your kind listening.