Sunday, June 20, 2010

`Ramming the Ebb'

The boys threw handfuls of sticky brown fish-meal pellets into black water and watched it explode with snapping salmon jaws and white bellies. This is the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery on the Issaquah Creek, home to twenty-thousand fish returning each September. The main building was a 1935 WPA project. The place is part farm, part factory, part salmon-theme park. Nature is regulated and no salmon are strictly “wild,” though they swim past Canada, up the Alaskan coast and back.

Growing out of cracks in the concrete wall flanking the creek were two mulleins, one resembling a large flattened structurally perfect artichoke. Yellow flowers on the other were just opening. In “Mullein,” Eric Ormsby says the velvet-leafed plant “grows big and green where other green things die” and “domesticates / Small desolations.” From a distance I saw a crow hopping and picking at something on a bare spot in a nearby field. When I walked over and he flew off I noticed he had only one leg, which accounts for the hopping. He left behind fragments of peanut shell.

Our guide was vague and unfocused but grew articulate when asked specific questions. Casually she used the language of salmon biology, much of it lovely, monosyllabic and Anglo-Saxon in origin. I wrote some of it in my notebook:

Alevin: larval salmon fresh from the egg.
Redd: depression in river-bottom gravel created by the female salmon's body and tail, into which she deposits hundreds of eggs.
Fry: alevin that have left their yolk sacs
Parr: salmon several months old which have developed markings on their sides.
Smolt: parr that have turned silver in color, lost their markings and are ready to journey down river. Etymologically related to smelt.
Kelts: adult salmon that survive after spawning.
Kype: the hooked snout of males used to fend off other males during spawning
Milt: salmon sperm.

The names of the salmon’s sexes are borrowed from other species -- males are bucks and females hens. We also saw a weir, a low dam in the creek. Perhaps because Geoffrey Hill on Friday was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, I saw traces of his poems everywhere. In the weir, for instance, Section XCVI from The Triumph of Love, 1998:

“Ignorant, assured, there comes to us a voice—
Unchallengeable—of the foundations,
distinct authority devoted
to indistinction. With what proximity
to justice stands the record of mischance,
heroic hit-or-miss, the air
so full of flak and tracer, legend says,
you pray to live unnoticed. Mr Ives
took Emersonian self-reliance the whole
way on that. Melville, half-immolated,
rebuilt the pyre. Hoist, some time later,
stumbled on dharma. What can I say?—
At worst and best a blind ennoblement,
flood-water, hunched, shouldering at the weir,
the hatred that is in the nature of love.”

And then the relentlessly procreative salmon themselves. The first poem in Hill’s first book, For the Unfallen (1959), is “Genesis,” one he subsequently dismissed as juvenilia. All those roiling fish in concrete tanks reminded me of this stanza from the first section:

“And where the streams were salt and full
The tough pig-headed salmon strove,
Ramming the ebb, in the tide’s pull,
To reach the steady hills above.”

1 comment:

Nick said...

I had a funny fear of the mullein plant when I was very young, and avoided them wherever I could. Indeed I could scarcely stand to look at them. A childhood friend had convinced me when I was very young that they were mobile; at night they would uproot and move closer to your house in order to encircle you. Given their blanket-like coverage of my native Eastern Ontario, such a fact would not surprise me. The larger specimens, with the candelabra flower shafts invoked a special fear, and my friend and I would go "hunting" them but were never strong enough to uproot the big ones. I had no idea Ormsby (a former Canadian resident) had written a lovely poem about them.