It’s nearly the equinox, when day and night are equal in length, often called the first day of autumn. For several weeks, creeks in the upper Columbia River region have hosted anadromous sockeye salmon, returning home to spawn and die. Chemical changes transform the silver scales of the adults into vivid red. After they spawn and their own life ceases, the scarlet flush fades. Corpses litter the streams even as the next generation of fertilized eggs nestles into the gravel, waiting for spring.
This homing process allows anyone who watches to gaze through a watery window at the completion of the birth-death-decay-rebirth cycle. Is this, in fact, the end?
In The Sense of an Ending: studies in the theory of fiction, the British literary scholar Frank Kermode (1919-2010) defines an “ending” as the real or imagined conclusion of any story, history, theology or era, but not of life itself. “Fiction,” he says, is less something made up than it is a simple experience of time. Discussing apocalyptic fiction in particular, he argues that any prediction of an end to the world is continually falsified by reality. The end actually does not ever come. Time must, therefore, be adjusted continually. In this way, stories impose order on time, creating only a sense of an ending, not an actual conclusion to life itself.
The year 2020 has been defined by many as apocalyptic, filled with a sense of impending doom lit by wildfires, Covid-19, political turmoil, and the upending of economic structures. Many people are in fact calling for an early completion to this year, so devastating have been its impacts. Doubt about this call for an end nibbles at my thoughts. What if the death, decay and suffering we are being forced to confront turns out to be something other than an end?
On a recent visit to my favourite spawning stream, I spent less time with the flaming, lively and photogenic fish, those swimming briskly, those eager for mating. A grizzly bear had rumbled through my yard at dusk a few days earlier and I knew he had been headed here, to the creek. I imagined him stuffing some of the lively scarlet fish into his maw. I was drawn to fish he had not caught, those lying faded and torn beneath the surface. Overhead, croaking ravens, soaring eagles and loping blue herons circled. At the mouth of the creek, a colony of gulls bobbed and waited for more cast offs. I crouched and watched as one gull landed beside the stream with a salmon head firm in its beak. It wrangled with the head, poking and eating until all the flesh was gone.
In this way, fecundity vests itself in decay, composing a different sense of an ending. We may wish for an end to 2020, one that will not come. Or, we may begin to realize that we exist in a spinning orb of renewal, one that cannot easily be defined by finite or linear measures of time.
Good one! Thank you! I, too, spend many hours in the Columbia reaches, living at Gifford, by the ferry to the Rez. I so enjoy this time of turning, watching as things change along the water’s edge from my silent kayak. Letting go, I remind myself, is all I am asked to do.
Natalie Bodine says
Beautiful, Eileen! You are a gifted writer and a kind compassionate friend. Thank you for sharing!
Your ability to fit so much into these short pieces of writing always amazes me. Thank you for writing and sharing.
Beautiful writing and visuals, Eileen! Thanks for this glimmer/shimmer of hope. I’m finding it hard to see anything but apocalypse but you remind me that despair is self-indulgence. As Graeme says, you fit so much into a small space and that is remarkably like you and your careful attention to the macrocosm. Sawubona.
Edith Dagley says
This is such beautiful writing Elaine ! And a positive message , rooted in nature . Hopeful.
Joanne Taylor says
So beautiful a message, Eileen. One that reminds me of reincarnation as life continues through its cycle of constant renewal. Perhaps there is a positive note of renewal in the world too as it reimagines itself just as the Grizzly, the elk, the wolves, the Eagles, the carrion, and finaly the microbes assistin in yet more rebirth; its beautiful message of life, timely. Thank you dear friend 🙏
Marie Olson says
Your lyrical descriptions fascinate me, as always.
Linda Crosfield says
What a wonderfully thoughtful, beautifully illustrated post. A good reminder that endings spell new beginnings. That being said, I so look forward to when (when!?!?) we can get together over lunch again. Seems like a million years ago. The things you take for granted…
Dear Eileen, your writing is sheer and more refined as you go. Isn’t it wonderful that life offers us the serendipity of it’s transformations that you so well juxtaposed to our finite notions of narrative.
The color in the salmon as it reddens and the translucent quality of gas’s in the water, the frailty of exposed skeleton that you captured in the picture emanate transition. The contrast that you offered Of the cyclical, to the fixed perception of finality and the engrossing temperament of our covid times is so aptly described. I guess that gnawing sense of query is one that artists succumb to in order to stay on the toes and make clear decisions. I so enjoy your creativity and warmth. Sincerely
Linda Stanley says
Beautiful language, and I love all the thought of life’s processes you put into your topics. Sometime, can I post this or another online to reach a huge audience, many former teachers and writers?