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.