Salmon, Pagan Stewardship and the Lesson of Samhain

Salmon, from the Druid Animal Oracle Deck

“How are the salmon doing this year?”

They prepare us for that question during our training. Be optimistic, they tell us, but be honest. Start with something like, “It depends.”

That word, dependence.

Each year, at Samhain, the salmon return to Piper’s Creek. I wonder what it must be like for them in those lazy summer months before. Their sleek silver bodies slipping through the salty ocean waters of the Pacific, riding the frigid currents north along the coast and back again. The endless, impenetrable depths stretching out beneath them, down and down. The mirror of the sea’s surface ruffled by wind, dipping and rolling as the waves pass over their heads. I wonder if they know what it means, when their bodies begin to change, from simple silver to the patterns of greens and blues and pinks, the spots breaking out along their backs, the uneven stripes along their sides. I wonder if they know, when they scent the familiar fresh water washing into the sound with the first autumn rains, calling them home to Piper’s Creek. I wonder if they know they’re going to die.

So much depends on the salmon’s return. In a wild run, in a healthy ecosystem, the salmon’s return each autumn brings rare nutrients from the ocean deep into the forest, feeding bear and otter and insect. The bodies of the dead rot on the banks of the stream, and the worms and larvae get to work, breaking down their remains. In the spring, those insects will themselves be food for the young salmon fry and fingerlings who linger in the streams and rivers before heading out to the ocean as adults. The soil, enriched by nutrients and minerals carried in the bodies of the beloved dead past the tideline and up into the hills and mountains on the salmon’s last desperate journey, now nourish the trees in the riparian forest. Trees that lean over the water’s edge, cooling the stream to the low temperatures needed for the salmon’s eggs, their roots holding back the soil and silt that could smother them before they’ve hatched. It’s not a romanticization to say that the salmon’s death in the late autumn is essential to its young’s survival in the spring. This community is one of complex interdependence, circling through the seasons year to year.

The salmon stopped coming to Piper’s Creek in 1927. The Great Northern Railway had finally reached Seattle only a few decades earlier, cutting along the shoreline across the wetlands that connected Piper’s Creek to Puget Sound. In 1921, the last trees of the virgin forest — huge western red cedars with their soft, papery bark and their sweeping, sweet-scented branches, some of them a thousand years old or more — were logged and shipped away. The salmon disappeared.

For almost a century, the water of Piper’s Creek has been undrinkable, dangerously polluted by urban runoff and the chemicals of industry. Bit by bit, the people of the neighborhood began to replant trees, carving out green spaces here and there. A park was set aside surrounding the small creek, reclaiming only a fraction of its three square-mile watershed. First the alder and maples returned, then gently, hesitantly, after fifty years of exile, the western red cedars began to take root again. But the salmon did not return.

The history of the park is, in some ways, the history of human intervention. In the 1980s, a handful of community leaders decided they wanted the salmon back. Restoration work focused on reviving and protecting the wetland and small estuary that had been destroyed by the coming of the railroad. A decade later, a program was started to seed the creek from local fish hatcheries. Eventually, an incubation pond was built where salmon fry could linger before heading out to sea, acclimating and learning the scent of Piper’s Creek so that years later, when it was time to spawn, instinct would lead them back to those same waters.

Today, Piper’s Creek draws visitors from all over the region as the public gathers to see the fish returning. Salmon stewards (like yours truly) stand by to answer questions and point visitors to the best viewing spots. But mostly, we all show up to watch and marvel at the long, slippery bodies that make their way upstream in only a few inches of water. We cheer when we see the tired, scrawny male (who’s tried and failed so many times before) finally make it past the weir. And then someone turns to me and asks, “So, how are the salmon doing this year?”

The autumn air smells like rotting leaves, and the rains are steady. I smile and say, “We’re hoping for a good run this year, but there are so many factors, it really depends.”

This run is not a wild run. The creek is far from clean. On days of heavy rain, it smells of sewage and the waters run quick, maybe too quick, scouring out the creek bed where the salmon have laid their eggs. Each spring, 70,000 fry are released into the incubation pond and of these, only 100 – 300 adults return to spawn. Without human intervention, no salmon would come to Piper’s Creek even now, and the official purpose of the Salmon Stewardship program is not restoration, but education. There can be no restoration, conservationists say, until the problems of urban infrastructure and pollution upstream are redressed. For now, the best we can do is teach people what they can do, and show them why they should care.

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I wanted to ground myself in the landscape. I wanted to introduce myself to the beings that claimed this place as their own, the trees and birds, spiders and salmon, coyote and mountain beaver. I strive to shape my practice to the land, to listen to its seasons and its songs and go from there.

For me, Salmon has claimed her place along the year’s wheel at Samhain-tide. The salmon run at Piper’s Creek begins by the first day of November and lasts as late as the winter solstice. It is a time of cool, steady rain, a time of death and consummation. It is the in-between time, just after the Celtic New Year, but before the dawn of lengthening days. A time when new life begins in the dark, buried beneath the gravel of the streambed, invisible and silent.

Piper’s Creek is in a time of transition: not restored to its ancient wilderness, but kept alive nonetheless, preserved through a stubborn human will that knows its own culpability until a time when the salmon return on their own, without our help.

I think in many ways, modern Paganism is in this twilight time before rebirth as well. Seeded and kept alive from generation to generation after two millennia of broken traditions and scattered, assimilated cultures. We strive to root our traditions in the land, in a sense of place and in the presence of earth, but the social systems upstream don’t make it easy. They scour out or wash away what we try to plant in the earth, they smother and starve our young. Each year, a fresh batch of “noobs” lounges among Pagan 101 books and workshops, picking up the scent of possibility before heading out to deeper waters. So many of them, it seems, begin this way. But later, only a few jaded, exhausted elders return to fight their way upstream to fresh, familiar waters, unsure if any of their work will survive the coming winter, unsure if they can trust to time.

We are not a wild run, you and I.

But that doesn’t diminish the journey.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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