In his extraordinary book Being Salmon, Being Human: Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild, Martin Lee Mueller asks:
“How can we begin to think (as well as intuit, feel, and sense) salmon not as discreet ontological units, but as radically relational creatures: intelligent beings who engage creatively, cunningly, and fluidly in the metamorphic depth of the real? How can we alert our awareness more capably to an embodied sentience so unlike our own, one attuned to the Earth’s magnetic fields, to the oceans’ somatic soundworld, to the vaulted movements of celestial bodies, to drifting weightlessly in their waterworld as if gravity did not exist?”
Here, as a philosopher, Mueller seems to emphasize “thinking.” I believe — and I believe he does too — that even “scientific thinking” is intertwined with and nourished by intuition, feelings, and senses. So, when I hear these questions, I say that Art & Story are good places to start. These are the ways that humans have connected with the larger-than-human world since our earliest beginnings.
The beautiful wooden mask shown above is a good example. Among the indigenous peoples on the northwest coast of Turtle Island/ North America, these masks are not mere decorations or disguises. The masks are sacred objects imbued with active spirit and deep meaning, treated with reverence at all times. When a mask is danced, the Spirit of the mask is present and active.
In the words of Kwakwaka‘wakw Chief, writer, & curator Robert Joseph (Down from the Shimmering Sky):
“The masks of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast are powerful objects that assist us in defining our place in the cosmos. In a world of endless change and complexity, masks offer a continuum for Native people to acknowledge our connection with the universe. …. Masks have an important and significant place in our evolution. Every mask is quintessential to our desire to embrace wholeness, balance and harmony. In a simple and fundamental act of faith we acknowledge and reaffirm our union through song and dance, ceremony and ritual.”
Chief Robert Joseph began dancing the masks as a boy. He speaks of moment the mask is donned:
“It is a moment when all the world is somewhere else. I am totally and completely alone. My universe is the mold of the mask over my face. I am the mask. I am the bird. I am the animal. I am the fish. I am the spirit. I visualize my dance. I ponder every move. I transcend into the being of the mask.”
Most of the masks are carved from one piece of cedar (or, occasionally, maple). The transformation masks like the one above are different, are hinged. Closed they show one being (here a salmon). But when the dancer opens the mask, another being is revealed — a beautiful assertion of the Oneness of all Being….
I do not know the precise meaning to the powerful mask in this photo, but it reminds me of a story that is told — in many variations — by many of the peoples of the NW coast. I have heard and read quite a few different tellings. This is my telling for this moment, offered with humble gratitude to the Old Ones whose wisdom drew this story from their land & its beings, and to all the generations of storytellers who opened their hearts to this story & offered their voices to keep it alive. I don’t know if this exactly how it happened, but I know that it is true.
There was a boy who was loved by his parents. They gave him the best place to sleep by the fire & a precious copper collar to adorn his neck. When it was time to eat, they always gave him the biggest piece of meat.
Now there came a time of the year when the stores of dried salmon were almost gone. “I am hungry,” the boy cried. “I am hungry!” His mother gave him a small piece of the remaining salmon. He stamped his foot. “No!” he said angrily. “No! It is not enough!” And he threw the piece of salmon into the bushes & stomped down to the river to play.
That boy didn’t think about what he had done, but the Salmon People knew and they were angry.
The boy threw sticks into the river & watched them float swiftly away, One stick did not float. He stepped right up to the edge of the riverbank and looked down to see if he could find his stick in the deep water. Something was there. Something was moving. He saw a silver gleam. He leaned further and further forward. That boy fell into the water and went down, down, down.
At first, he was afraid. But after awhile it seems as if he were in a canoe being carried into the depths of the water. When the canoe stopped, the boy stepped out and looked around. He was in a village not unlike his own — with small lodges & the Great Longhouse with its totem pole and carefully carved doors. And the village was filled with people.
These were the Salmon People. They took the boy in and fed him. They were kind to him and taught him their ways. After a time had passed, the Salmon Chief called all the village into the Great Longhouse. There as drumming and sacred dancing, and as the boy watched his eyes grew round. Then the Council of Elders said, “We are all ready for the journey. Now is the time.”
That boy felt how round his eyes were. He felt himself begin to change. His body glistened with silvery scales and his tail was strong. He was flying through the water with his friends, heading downstream.
And then the water, too, changed. It was salty, it was wide, it pulled at his body in ways different from the river. That boy slapped his tail and leapt high. He was filled with life!
Years passed. That boy journeyed far. Sometimes his friends were close and sometimes he was alone. That boy ate and ate. He become a young man. He grew and grew, fat and strong, until one day he felt himself turning towards home. Something was calling the Salmon People & they swam and swam until they reached their river. Upstream they swam, even when the current tried to push them back to the sea. Up they swam, leaping over rocks & rapids. Oh, they were fearless, fierce, and strong!
At last that boy found himself in the river beside his parents’ village. One evening he began to leap out of the water. He leapt high, and higher still. And his mother saw him and called her husband to see the great fish.
And his father speared him.
Quickly his mother brought out her knife to cut the fish open. But suddenly she stopped. She saw the copper collar around his neck. “This is our son!” she cried. “This is our son!”
They carried the fish to their lodge and wrapped him in a blanket. With great love, they laid him on the best furs to rest. During the night he felt himself changing. In the morning, when he arose, he stepped out of his fish-skin.
His mother heard something and turned from her cooking. With a great cry, she ran to him and hugged him to her heart. And he put his arms around his mother and knew he was home.
All the village gathered to hear his tales of the Salmon People and their village. He told of his adventures in the great salt water with its plentiful food & plentiful dangers. He told of their fearless journey back up the river. He taught his people the ways of the salmon and how they must welcome the salmon’s return each year with drums & prayer & ceremony. He taught them that the salmon give themselves as gifts to his people. He taught that they must use every part of the salmon they can and they must place the bones & the leavings back in the river with great reverence. In this way the salmon may be reborn & come again.
And the people named him Salmon Boy.
Oh, as the years passed, Salmon Boy became a great teacher and shaman and healer…. And so he is remembered to this day. And so Salmon Boy is reborn through the telling of his story, that he might teach us what we need to learn.
I’ll leave you with Martin Lee Muellers’ beautiful & insightful “scientific” description or definition of Salmon (Being Salmon, Being Human:
“A salmon is a sensing, sensitive being making conscious choices inside a sensuous aquatic world she coinhabits with other sentient beings. She is also the unique smell of that one estuary, that place where she once passed from her freshwater youth into saltwater adulthood. She is the magnetic field that spans from pole to pole and sends waves of recognition through her sensing body on the long journey back home. She is the anticipation of riverside humans who hungrily await her return from the ocean. She is the pace at which riverside Sitka spruce metabolizes icy skin into wooden bark, and the way in which grizzly bear metabolizes her into hair and fat that will sustain grizzly through another cold season. She is the river’s topography, its resistance, its moods. She is all that.
To define the creature away from her web of relations, and the web of relations away from the creature, is to open the way to exploiting this creature, to diminishing her, violating her, abusing her, denying her. We are who we are in relation to others. Salmon are who they are in relation to tress, rocks, ravens, rivers.”
Let's stop and think. Who, I wonder, are we?