A Way Home Through The Fog: On Memory, Story & Restoration

The living landscape has an undeniable impact on the way our minds work. The foggy autumn weather persists out here on the rumpled rocky shores of Puget Sound, and I find my thoughts tending towards metaphors of mist and rain and mountain-torn horizons half veiled by clouds.

The fog has wended its way into my mind more than once over the past couple weeks. Not least because it has stubbornly refused to give way to the long, steady rain more typical for Seattle at this time of year. I know some of my friends are rejoicing at the not-quite-so-soaking weather, but I can’t help but feel somewhat uneasy. All day as I sit at my writing desk, I glance out the window at a world that seems still and quiet… as they say, a little too quiet.

Last weekend, Jeff and I spent hours wandering the banks of Piper’s Creek preparing for the Salmon Nature Walk that we’ll be leading this Saturday. By now, the creek should be a pretty noisy place, full of the distinctive sound of chum and coho salmon struggling upstream, fighting their way over weirs and fallen logs. There should be males inciting a wet riot with their posturing, grappling and chasing one another off, while females dig out their redds with long sweeping splashes of their muscular tails. Instead, our wanderings were muffled by fog. The creek rushed on, riding low in its streambed and practically empty of fish — we spotted only two small males, circling each other cautiously in the murky waters of a shallow pool.

The season is right. The fish have made it as far as Puget Sound following the promptings of instinct, navigating thousands of miles of ocean. Yet the fog lingers. Without the necessary steady rains to wash the familiar scent of freshwater rivers and streams out into the sound, the salmon languish just offshore — uncertain of which way to go, unsure which creek is calling them home.

It’s as if they, too, are lost in the fog.

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I have not been out here in the Pacific Northwest for very long, but already I’ve grown used to the annual return of the salmon. For a girl who grew up landlocked nestled in the corn-sown, coal-country foothills of the ancient Appalachians, it’s a daily pleasure just to live so near the sea that there’s a smell of salt on the air when the wind turns just right. Even when the Cascades call me further inland to wander in their thickly-ferned forests, the sea follows me as low billowing clouds piling up against the mountain slopes, while at my feet streams that are flush with snowmelt rush westward to meet the ocean.

The whole landscape is alive with the romance of wind, water and rock.

And the salmon are just another part of this dance: push-and-pull, longing and striving, journey and return. Call it sentimental, but seeing the first salmon of the season always leaves me astounded and speechless with gratitude.

Maybe it’s because I’m still so new to this place that I feel the quiet of the lingering fog and the salmon’s absence more acutely than folks who have watched the ebb and flow of each autumn’s return knowing that some years will be better than others, and some years will be worse. I feel like someone who has only just found a treasure of immeasurable value and is afraid that all too soon she might lose it again. I lived for seven years in Pittsburgh, a city balanced on the brink of three mighty rivers, without ever having seen a fish outside of an aquarium. I grew up in the Susquehanna Valley, named for one of the oldest rivers in the world, but never swam in its waters because they were too polluted with agricultural run-off and suburban sewage. It never occurred to me to wonder how these rivers might once have been: ribbons of fresh, joyful abundance rippling across the sacred landscape, nourishing whole communities of life.

Only now, face to face with the intense gaze of the salmon, am I struck with a chilling gut-deep fear of losing sight of that vision — the vital, mutually-sustaining interconnection between land and sea.

In a recent post on the Nature Conservancy blog, Matt Miller reflects on the relationship between memory and restoration:

It’s human nature to assume that the way things are today are “normal.” Scientists have a term for this: shifting baseline syndrome. The dozens of salmon in a river become the baseline, the new normal — even though fifty years ago, there were tens of thousands, and before that, millions.

And when the fish disappear, it’s as if they were never there.

Miller describes the ecological history of rivers in North America as “a story of almost-incomprehensible loss.” It is this inability to comprehend just what we have lost — the impossibility of remembering what we have long since forgotten or perhaps have never known — that frightens me most.

The past recedes from view. Memories grow foggy and indistinct, like a landscape withdrawing into the darkening haze of autumn’s decline. It is so easy to think we have always lived this way, struggling with scarcity, alienated from the living earth, uncertain and alone. Without stories of bountifulness and beauty, how are we to find our way back to that place of sustainability? Without the rain-washed scent of hope, what will guide us home?

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But it’s not all bad news. This past week saw a good, steady overnight drizzle on the night of the new moon. Good things sometimes move under the cover of darkness, when the tides are high and the creeks are swollen with rain.

Meanwhile, several friends sent this neat article my way:

A large pod of orcas swam around a Washington state ferry in an impressive display as it happened to be carrying tribal artifacts to a new museum at the ancestral home of Chief Seattle, and some people think it was more than a coincidence.

Killer whales have been thrilling whale watchers this week in Puget Sound, […b]ut they were especially exciting Tuesday when nearly three-dozen orcas surrounded the ferry from Seattle as it approached the terminal on Bainbridge Island. On board were officials from The Burke Museum in Seattle who were moving ancient artifacts to the Suquamish Museum.

Maybe this was a bit of magic afoot. Or maybe the lingering fog and lack of rain that has kept the salmon from making their way upstream for the past couple weeks has instead provided a feast for predators like orcas, porpoises, seals and sea birds. According to the Orca Network, sightings in Puget Sound this year have been record-breaking, with numerous orca pods even visible from overlooks in city parks like Discovery and Carkeek.

Or maybe, it’s a little bit of both: mysticism and ecology, spirituality and science. Maybe we have more in common with the orca and the salmon than we realize. Maybe, as one friend pondered, it is our plant and animal kin that carry the artifacts of our past and guard the stories of renewal that we will need for the future.

Maybe it is that very ambiguity — the tension between past and future, between reason and imagination, between memory and hope — that makes the magic of sacred presence possible. A magic that will lead us home.

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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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