Animal Allies – Salmon

From river to sea to rivers again

Salmon are not the type of fish to stay still, they have an active life and are always moving, even if it’s against the tide at times…

They start life as tiny eggs and about two months after they are laid, salmon eggs have eyes and after about four months, they start to hatch.  At this point they are known as Alvin and they have to find a space place in the river to hide whilst they grow.  They are nourished by their egg sac but once this food source runs out, they must leave their comfort zone.

This is the first step in what will be a huge life journey, full of travel, adventure and exploration.  You cannot grow and expand yourself if you don’t leave your comfort zone.

“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for”

During the fry stage, they eat small aquatic insects and grow and grow until they are ready to transition from fresh to sea water.  As they move from river to ocean, the dangers increase – out at sea there are killer whales, sea otters and humans all trying to catch them.

These are fish which travel far – several thousand kilometres in the life. They are explorers and fighters.  And yet with all the predators they face, it’s a miracle that any make it back to spawn.  This is a creature which succeeds despite the odds.  They face challenges head on, courageously.

Moving from fresh water to sea water marks just one transition in this creature’s life, the salmon is asking us to reflect on changes in our lives and emulate some of her adaptability.

After three years, if they survive this ordeal, they return to their spawning grounds.  They follow their nose back to the rivers that birthed them.  On the way, they are vulnerable to bears, bald eagles, and once again humans.  This is an arduous journey, females are carrying eggs and both sexes are reaching the end of the lives.  They fight against currents, they swim upstream, they tackle waterfalls until they are back where they started, their home river bed.  Some salmon travel over 1,400km and climb nearly over 2,000 metres as they make this journey.

Their gruelling journey upstream may be a reminder to check in, is this effort worth it?  Are you doing this for the right reasons?  What is your motivation for this difficult battle?  Enter into your fight consciously.  Determination and perserverance are powerful tools but are you fighting for the right thing?  Or do you need to push harder?

It might also be asking if you spend too much time going with the flow, letting the crowd guide you and whether you need to swim against convention and expectation.  Maybe you are being called to go against the grain?  You might also need to revisit your roots, whether that’s going back to where you grew up, looking into your ancestry or reflecting on your formative years.

Once they arrive at the spawning site, the female, with her powerful tail, makes a nest in the gravel to deposit her eggs.  The male then fertilises them before leaving the female to protect her clutch for a couple of weeks.  Then both parents die, leaving the next generation to start the cycle again.

The death of the adult is the birth of the child.  The two generations will never meet.  The older fish give way to the younger fish, they make the ultimate sacrifice for their family.  They are motivated and driven by an intense need to give birth.  This may not be appearing in a literal sense in your life but are you being pulled towards creating?  How that shows up will depend on your interests and skills, it might be through words, through art, it might be craft or baking.

We see the circle of life played out clearly within the salmon but this goes further.  The parent fish, once they’ve died, provide food for small invertebrates which are then eaten by the salmon larva.  As well as providing nutrients to future generations of salmon, the dead fish also introduce rich ocean nutrients into the forest ecosystem as they are eaten by birds, bears and otters.

I find it a fascinating paradox that the salmon puts all this energy and life force into fighting the natural rhythms of the river in order to continue nature’s cycle of life.

We find the salmon in both Celtic and indigenous American mythology.  In the former, the salmon is considered a wise and ancient creature, associated with knowledge.  In Irish tales, the Salmon of Knowledge grants powers to those who eat it.  If we turn to Wales, we find the salmon cast as the oldest animal in Britain and the only creature who knows the location of Mabon ap Modron, a divine child who had been imprisoned.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean to America, we find salmon providing food and spiritual guidance.  The fish guided indigenous people to respect the rivers that the salmon lived in.  As with almost every animal, when they killed them, they used all of their body, showing a respect and reverence for the natural world.  The bladder was used for glue, the bones became toes and the salmon skin became clothing and shoes.  Similarly, they wouldn’t catch the first fish to return to the rivers, instead waiting until they could be sure enough had returned.  There was an abundance of fish but they were not taken for granted or overharvested as we do today.  The first of the salmon to return were welcomed ceremoniously, then after the fishing and cooking process, some of the bones would be returned to the sea.

The importance of the first salmon ceremony has to do with the celebration of life, of the salmon as subsistence, meaning that the Indians depend upon the salmon for their living. And the annual celebration is just that – it’s an appreciation that the salmon are coming back. It is again the natural law; the cycle of life. It’s the way things are and if there was no water, there would be no salmon, there would be no cycle, no food. And the Indian people respect it accordingly. 
Antone Minthorn

Animal Allies: Jellyfish

Oh my gosh, jellyfish are amazing!  Even if this card hadn’t been in the deck, I’d be writing about jellyfish as part of my sea month (which, by the way, may last more than a month as I’ve barely touched on sea and writing yet!).

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The jellyfish also ties into our sea monsters theme as many people are, understandably, scared of jellyfish.  However I’m not going to look too much at the legends and myths, instead I’m going to be looking at the metaphor of the jellyfish and what wisdom it may have to share with us.

The biology of the jellyfish

Jellyfish have been around since before the dinosaurs, and could well still be around when humans have died out.  Having inhabited the ocean for over ½ billion years, they are a highly successful species and have adapted to many world changes in that time.

There are over 1000 types of jellyfish ranging from the size of a grain of sand to longer than a blue whale.  They all consist of a translucent bell which contracts to propel them through the water and have long, trawling, trailing tentacles which they use to capture prey.  Whilst they come in different colours and patterns, they are all transparent which makes it easier for them to blend in and avoid predators.

This transparency provokes some interesting thoughts when we think metaphorically about the jellyfish and ourselves.  With the jelly, what you see is what you get, there is no disguising feelings, no saying one thing and meaning another.  What about you?  Are you letting others see you, see your truth or are you, consciously or unconsciously, deceiving people or misleading them?  What about the people around you?  For me, this idea of being able to put yourself out there, heart and soul, brings into question validation.  If I put myself out there, will my emotions be validated or will they be ignored or rejected?  Where can I be more transparent?  Am I validating other people’s emotions or am I accidentally steamrolling over them.  And this comes to play in the self to self relationship as well, am I validating myself, am I honouring the part of me that needs to be seen?

Almost formless animals, jellyfish are alien to us, and they ask us how, without a head, a heart or a brain, can we relate to or empathise with them.  They challenge us emotionally, asking us to step far outside our own existence and our own bodies to understand their life experience and perspective.  How do we understand others?  How do we get to know what they have been through?

As well as lacking head and heart, they also lack a respiratory system, instead their skin is thin enough that they ‘breathe’ through diffusion.  Structurally speaking, they are very simple creatures.  But despite this, they are helping us make breakthroughs in genetic diseases, cancers and research into ageing.  Another species glows green when agitated and the chemical involved has been used as a genetic marker, allowing scientists to track cancer cells.

Interestingly for me, there is collagen inside the jellyfish.  Collagen makes up about a third of our bodies and mine is faulty, causing me pain and other issues.  Extracts of pure collagen from the jelly can have medical applications (but ignore the junk science, drinking collagen will not correct my genetic condition) including in cataracts surgery and for rheumatoid arthritis.

They remind us not to overlook simplicity, for with simplicity can come elegance as well as efficiency.  There are merits to simplifying ourselves and our lives, to going back to basics and stripping back the clutter that we have.

Lifecycle

The lifecycle of jellies is fascinating!  Especially that of the immortal jellyfish.

The Turritopsis Dohrmi, or the immortal jellyfish, is an incredible creature.  Like all jellies it starts life as a fertilised egg, turns into larva which then attaches itself to the sea floor and becomes a polyp.  The polyp then buds and these buds break free from the polyp as ephyra – baby jellyfish.  The polyp continues releasing ephyra clones.  The ephyra grow until they are adult jellyfish, also called medusas.  Once the medusa releases eggs or sperm, it dies.

But, the immortal jellyfish can change from medusa back to polyp and start the cycle again, a sort of backwards metamorphosis.  It does this to cope with stressers such as lack of food.  In theory, if it’s not eaten or hurt, the immortal jellyfish can continue in this cycle, moving between adult and child, forever.

Life is not always linear, sometimes we move forwards and sometimes we move backwards and this is ok.  Sometimes we need to revert back to our childhood, to heal wounds, to have fun or to change our perspective in life.  Consider the jellyfish a chance to reflect on how you allow play and childfullness into your life, how you treat your inner child and where you might need to nurture or mother yourself.

Movement

I’m going to be really short and sweet here as I want to get onto their sting, but ponder how the jellyfish move.  They are sensitive to the water around them and they let nature guide their journey.  They don’t fight the current, instead trusting they will get where they need to be.  That said, they can propel themselves along so they aren’t hapless victims of fate.  They are going with the flow, but not entirely directionless.

Defence

One of the key interactions between jellies and humans is when they sting us.  Their tentacles are covered in specialised cells which can release venom into the victim.  Not all jellyfish have venom that affects humans but some can kill us.  Even beached and dying jellies can still sting when touched.

Obviously their sting is more aimed at prey and at predators trying to attack the jelly but because of their long, dangling, training tentacles, we can be stung as we brush past them in the sea.  And as jellyfish are transparent and can be incredibly tiny, we can’t always see the threat.  The same is true of other threats in life, perhaps the jelly is nudging you to open your eyes a bit more.  Perhaps you need to face that threat which you’re currently pretending doesn’t exist.  Ignoring it doesn’t mean it’ll go away.

The other idea that comes to mind with the jellyfish’s sting is around self defence.  That, and to catch food, is why they have the venom.  I’m not advocating that you go around injecting people with toxins but think about how you can set up boundaries etc to look after yourself.

Are you lashing out?  Are you causing others, or yourself, accidental or avoidable pain?

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A final thought

I was learning about jellyfish when I was in hospital and at some stages I was on some strong medication that made me a bit spacey.  When I was looking back over my notes I saw what was probably the result of one of these occasions.  There, in my scrawl, is the question:

What do jellyfish dream of?

Answers on a postcard please!

Animal Allies Oracle Cards – Crab

I’m going to come back to the subject of sea monsters as there’s plenty to discuss but first I feel drawn towards a post about the crab. This is one of the cards in the Animal Allies Oracle Deck and so this post will form my thoughts about what that card means to me.

As with all my animal spirit posts, this is my personal feelings and not affiliated with the very talented Jessica Swift who created the deck.

One of the angles to approach the crab from is through the astrological sign of cancer. And this has been helpful to me in the past, but yesterday I learnt that the sign of cancer used to be represented by the turtle and that blew my mind. It really deepened my understanding of cancer and in doing so it also helped deepen my understanding of the crab card.

So, first a bit about the turtle… If this idea resonates with you I would recommend having a look at the turtle post as it’s more detailed.

  • We have the idea of coming out of your shell, sticking your neck out, when you feel comfortable, when you are in a safe place or when you’re with your tribe.
  • Links with the moon, and I’ll look at how the crab has ties with the moon in a bit, but for now it’s worth noting that the sign of cancer is ruled by the moon.
  • Despite diving deep into the ocean, and the emotional world, the turtle still needs to come up to the surface to breathe. And cancer is a sign which is associated with the development of the self, of going into that emotional world.
  • The turtle thrives in some environments and dies in others despite facing the same challenges and this feels like it could tie into the first point about comfort and feeling safe. Having your clan around you or starting from a secure (physical or emotional) base really affects how you meet challenges.

Ok. Back to the crab!

Crab Basics

Crabs live in all of the world’s oceans, in fresh water and on land. They range in size from the tiny pea crab to the Japanese spider crab which has a leg span that can reach 18 foot from claw to claw… So maybe we still are thinking about sea monsters!

In general, crabs are covered in a thick exoskeleton, their shell, and this is an important part of the crab card. If you ponder nothing else when you draw this card, think about the shell.

Crabs tend to be aggressive creatures, fighting with each other over who gets the girl crab and over the best hiding holes. They communicate by drumming or waving their pincers, both of which could seem threatening to someone who speaks a different language.

However, when it comes to family, they have been known to work together to provide food, to protect he clan and to find a good spot for the female to release her eggs. This feels like it ties into the idea of the turtle and how it faces challenges differently depending on the environment (physical or other). In this case the crab is working cooperatively to protect and defend because it’s family is important.

Crabs tend to walk sideways, although some walk forwards or backwards, and some crabs can even swim. But the walking sideways may be a reminder that you can’t always head straight for the destination. Sometimes you need to go the long way round or try a different approach. Paths in life are rarely ones we can follow by walking forwards, we find we take detours, fall off the path, get distracted by another path, but these are all part of the journey.

Shell

Generally, crabs have shells. This hard layer doesn’t grow with them, instead they have to moult, a process coordinated by their hormones. As they prepare to moult, the old shell starts to soften and erode and a new shell starts to form underneath it. When it is time to moult, the crab takes in a lot of water, expands and cracks open the old shell. They then have to get out of the shell, a process which can take hours, and which can be difficult – imagine trying to get yourself out of your skin! Once they’re entirely out of the old shell, eyes, legs and all, they have to hide. They are incredibly soft and vulnerable at this point and need to avoid predators until their new shell has hardened.

This feels like a huge metaphor for so many aspects of our lives and I’m not going to unpick the process much, but I want to note that there is merit in avoiding people who are likely to hurt you when you aren’t in a strong place. It is ok to practice self protection when you are vulnerable. It is ok to set boundaries.

With this idea of self protection, comes an aspect of sensitivity. As a society, we have a terrible tendency to think of sensitivity in emotional terms and tend to view it as a bad thing. Firstly, emotional sensitivity isn’t a bad thing, like most things in life it’s how you approach it and how you manage it. But there is also environmental sensitivity, feeling overwhelmed by the sensory information that’s coming at you or by intense external inputs such as too much noise or people fighting. I know that my reaction to these types of situations is to almost literally retreat back into my shell. I pull away, I try to get out of the environment and I close down. I no longer have my true self fully available, I pull my heart and my soul tight inside myself. But then, when I’m out of that situation and I’m surrounded by people who have earnt my trust, I start to put my head back out.

The crab asks to us consider when to leave your shell and when to stay, when to focus on the external and when to focus on the internal, when to tend to community and when to tend to yourself.

There is a resilience and a strength to the crab. They are survivors. And the shell is obviously an important part of that. But shells can become stifling and we can outgrow the clothes, or the mask, we wear. To break free and to step into another self is a difficult, painful and vulnerable thing to do. But if you don’t, the pain of wearing an old version of you will get too much.

This may be a time when you are doing some personal development or rebuilding who you are. None of us remain the same forever, perhaps this is a cue to stop and check in with yourself.

Whilst shells provide excellent armour, they can also act as a divide between us and the world. Are you feeling connected to what is going on around you? Are you putting up walls to protect yourself? Are these walls helpful or hurtful right now? Are you letting anyone see beneath your shell?

Returning a moment to the idea of the turtle as the symbol for cancer, we find an interesting difference in shells. Where the shell of the crab needs replacing and leaves the crab vulnerable during growth, and creates more of a dramatic process of growth, the turtle’s shell is made up from it’s backbone and it grows with the turtle. Turtles can also feel things through their shell and they cannot live without their shell. Crabs can live without their shell, as indeed they have to when they are changing shells. Whether they can feel someone touching their shell or not seems to still be up for debate. But for my perspective, mulling over metaphors, I think it’s an interesting thinking point.

If you’ve felt drawn to hermit crabs in particular, you’re going to have a bit more thinking to do as they don’t have a shell themselves, they step into those which used to belong to other animals. They are scavengers, mask wearers and actors. They are disguised and they are much more vulnerable than other crabs.

Moon

As they are often found in or around the sea, crabs are affected by the tides and hence by the moon. For example, they tend to mate at new and full moons. This means that the female will release her eggs to the tide at the next new or full moon when there is greater tidal flux meaning the eggs are more likely to be swept away to the sea safely.
But as mating needs to happen when the female crab has just moulted, this means that their moulting cycles are also governed by the moon and the tides. This also means that they are at their most vulnerable during new and full moons so perhaps the crab is calling you to look into your self care at these times.

There is a lot here to think about, especially if you reach out to see what the turtle has to say as well. If it’s all a bit much, perhaps ponder your relationship to the sea and the moon, both play a huge role in the life of a crab.

Animal Allies Oracle Deck

Today, in the post, I received a present from past Helen, a beautiful, inspiring oracle deck.  From the early days of Jessica Swift’s animal paintings I have longed for one, or all, of them.  They are amazing pieces of art which she is now selling as originals and as prints.  But even better, she is selling them as oracle cards.

Even if you don’t use oracle or tarot cards, the decks are a great way to own a lot of art work but not have to find space for it all.  And somehow, this deck feels like it’s more personal.  As I’ve followed Jessica’s blog and developments, I’ve seen her paintings grow from a small daily project to get some art in each day with a new born to become an entire oracle deck.

They arrived in pretty packaging and my moment of “oh helen what have you accidentally bought and forgotten now” was soon replaced by delight as I got the deck open and started to see the cards.  You can buy the deck from Jessica’s website along with prints and original paintings.

And those astute readers will probably already have guessed, but this will mean some more animal spirit posts!  There’s a lot of duplicate between the animal allies deck and the wild unknown and animal dreaming decks so I’m only going to look at the different cards.  And that includes the amazing armadillo, the captivating crab and the smelly skunk.  Stay tuned!