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.