“leaping with salmon for old emotions” (Duane Niatum)

ghost fish

The rain over the past few days has me remembering last November when the weather system known as an atmospheric river caused such damage and chaos in the province. I’d listen to the news and when it seemed that things couldn’t get worse, they got worse. Whole rivers were rerouted. Portions of Highway 8 and surrounding ranches, pastures, hillsides, collapsed into the Nicola River. If you’ve read Blue Portugal and Other Essays, you might remember the section of “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again” about that length of Highway 8 in my family’s history of beloved places, written a few years before last fall, but somehow part of the ongoing story of rivers and what they mean to us over time. In November last year I’d begun to think about a quilt using red strips and blue ones, inspired, at first, by my regular swims from October til May in our local pool. I began these swims because of a venous issue and for a time I swam reluctantly because a pool with straight lanes felt like anathema to me. The idea of wearing a bathing suit in a bright public place: yikes. I was wrong though. No one is looking at a woman in her 60s in a black bathing suit. I should have known I’d become invisible. So I find my lane, swim, and it’s made all the difference. I wanted to think about that as I stitched. But then the news turned my attention to raging rivers and ranches washed away, highways collapsing, bridges tumbled into water. The top of the quilt was still a composition of lines, red ones, blue Japanese cottons, but I found a length of soft cotton, something I’d put into the dye vat after it was almost worn out, so the resulting blue is quiet, but I’d forgotten I’d batiked salmon on the surface, forgotten until I spread out the cotton to see if I had enough for a quilt back. I did, and I thought how appropriate those ghostly fish were, considering how many newly-laid salmon eggs were being washed away in those river systems.

How long have they laid buried
in the sludge and grime of industry
erasing the river’s breath
So after the 3 layers were basted together–the top, with its lanes of red and blue; the organic cotton batting; the blue back with a few ghost-salmon swimming through its folds–I took out red sashiko thread and the long sharp needles and stitched those wild rivers with their ox-bows, meanders, collapsing banks.
old rivers
Yesterday we stopped at Anderson Creek, still dry 3 weeks ago, but now filled with chum salmon, swimming in their purposeful way to their spawning area. For years we went every fall to see them. They’re not as dramatic as bright red sockeye or burgundy coho but they are beautiful in the quick water, the females filled with eggs, the males hovering near. For years when our children were in school, I’d volunteer on the days when parents were needed to drive a class to the creek to witness this phenomenon, many of their fathers fishermen themselves, and as noisy and wild as kids can be, they were always quiet on the banks of the creek, looking at the miracle of fish, of clean water, of huge cedars nourished by nitrogen 15 deposits from the decaying bodies of spawned out salmon, the eagles waiting in the trees, bears lurking, and everywhere the scent of those fish. Yesterday I remembered those mornings and was glad we stopped to see this part of the beautiful cycle again.
It’s colder now at night, the sound of rain on our blue metal roof, and the quilt inspired by swimming, rivers, the fish (somehow the heroes of every story I know about them) over us as we sleep.
           …my old salmonberry moon under a sky
as light as a tossed net, who remains,
leaping with salmon for old emotions?
frozen fog
Note: the lines of poetry are from Duane Niatum’s “The Disappearance of the Duwamish Salmon”

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