Saturday, 19 November 2016

Beauty and the Big Stink

A few days ago, I awoke with a sense of “good things happening today”. I was working on a project, and it was going well. For a change, the sun was shining. The house would be empty all morning. It was a perfect storm of good things coming together.

So I got dressed and was almost ready to take the stairs to my hideout, the studio, when Someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, but aren’t you forgetting something?”

Gotcha! A week earlier, I’d (again, sigh!) realized I was neglecting the routine of my sit spot and a walk by the river, with the inevitable results thereof: disconnectedness from myself, my art and my Creator. I’d used the excuse of family commitments in August and September,  the record setting rainfall we’d had in October and November, and the old stand-by: somuchtodo on other days. Last week, after rough times, I started walking again...and already, just a few days later, I was off track. We are our own worst enemies, aren’t we?

So I pulled on my walking shoes and set off. So much beauty to absorb: the sun shining in a clear blue sky, the last of the colourful leaves clinging to branches, the invigorating sound of the raging river, the deep, underlying peace of the woods as I descended the path.

Peace and beauty ... and stink. Big Stink. The stink was everywhere in the woods.

We live in God’s country, they say here--the land of plenty. And the land of plenty includes salmon. All the rivers in this area are salmon-bearing streams, and at this time of year the fish come up the rivers by the thousands, already dying but needing to do that one last thing before they breathe their last: spawn. “Our river”, the Puntledge, is no exception.

Dead salmon beside their "nest" of eggs, which unfortunately have become uncovered because of the raging streams.

Because we have had record-setting amounts of rain, the rivers have been flowing into the woods and parks along their banks, carrying with them a lot of dying salmon. When the rivers recede, the woods are littered with the carcasses of these dead fish. I'm told the playing fields of the biggest park downtown had their share, too: imagine dead salmon on home plate, the outfield, under the swing sets, and in the soccer goals. Dead fish were belly up all along my walking path. Hence, the stink.

It's a good stink, though. It’s the stink of life. Salmon is a keystone species, meaning that if they disappear from the Valley, so will many other things. Bears and birds will have less food –one study showed that 137 species of fish and wildlife - from orcas to caddisflies - depend on the Northwest salmon for their survival.

The walking trail and the rivers are inhabited by a large population of gulls these days: dead salmon and uncovered eggs make grocery shopping a breeze. 

Without salmon dying in the streams and on the shores, the rivers won't have enough food to feed the new hatchlings, and the woods will become malnourished, for even the trees and vegetation depend on the rotting carcasses for key nutrients.  Up to 40% of nitrogen in streamside plants is traceable to salmon. It's even in your wine: one study close to a salmon-bearing stream showed that about a quarter of the nutrients in grape leaves came from dead salmon. They are so important to the environment, the local fish hatchery loads up the carcasses from the "egg-harvested" salmon into the back of a truck and spreads them around in the woods and rivers. Check out this web page for more fascinating facts:

In other words, there would be no beauty here without our big stink.

This got me to thinking. I do get so upset with myself for neglecting the things that I know are life-giving: walking, solitude, spiritual reading to name but three. This neglect is the “stinky” part of my life. But...perhaps it’s also true that without the stink, there will be no beauty. If I did everything that was good for me, well wow! I would be perfect. (The resident sweetie, my children and friends will be the first to say I am no such thing.) What a high standard that would be to live up to. Nobody can do it. If you think you can, you have a bigger problem.

Better then, to accept the stink and appreciate it for what it is: a reminder that there is something rotten in the state of my soul, and I’d better tend to it. That stink can be my friend if I pay attention.

So I begin again. I walked (occasionally holding my nose) and hummed a tune (Teddy Bear’s Picnic: “If you should go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise...”). I kept my eyes, my ears, my heart open to listen and take it in.

I know – the stinking salmon tell me – that beauty will come out of it.

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